Five races in the books – but you ain’t seen nothing yet!
By Darrell WaltripFoxSports
I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable Easter. With a brand-new race car and five consecutive different-style race tracks, I know these teams definitely were looking forward to having a break in the action last week.
However, it’s time to get back to the track. If you take a look in the rearview mirror at these first five races, I think it has been nothing short of amazing. Actually, we’ve seen a little bit of everything. From the time I rolled into Daytona in January for that early year, three-day test, to the time I rolled out of California, the one thing that hasn’t changed has been the excitement about this new car.
This air of excitement in our sport is something we haven’t felt in a long time. The teams, the drivers, NASCAR and most importantly the fans, are jacked up by what this car has brought to the table. The only missing component has been the teams’ time invested in this car.
I’ve seen all along the potential this car possesses. The car is waiting on the teams to catch up to it. These teams have only scratched the surface on what this new Gen-6 car is capable of. That’s why last weekend’s break was so beneficial. All the teams have data from five races on five different-style tracks to work with. Last week’s break gives them much needed time to analyze and adapt to what they’ve learned. That’s what I mean when I say you ain’t seen nothing yet.
We rolled the car out at Daytona for the very first time in competition and by the way, it just happens to be our biggest race of the year. When Speedweeks were over, the dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus once again served notice they are going to be a contender for the championship.
Obviously Danica’s winning the pole position for the Daytona 500 and her finish in the race were record-setting events. There were a lot of other high points that came out of Daytona. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was one of them. You didn’t hear much about Dale Jr. the entire time down there. You simply don’t associate an Earnhardt flying under the radar at Daytona, but that’s what Dale Jr. did right up until he finished second in the Daytona 500. That was the first of five races this year that Dale Jr. has served notice that he is someone you are going to have to beat for the championship.
The neat thing about this new car right out of the box at a restrictor-plate track was it seemed to be the Great Equalizer. It gave the smaller teams who you normally don’t see up front some equal footing for a change against the big boys. Sure you had the mega-team, Hendrick Motorsports finishing first and second but look at the rest of the top 10. You had the under-funded teams of Regan Smith in the No. 51 finishing seventh. Michael McDowell in the No. 98 car finished ninth and J.J. Yeley in the No. 36 finished 10th.
Not only did those three teams get to enjoy the spotlight of a top-10 finish in our biggest race of the season, but even more importantly, they got to enjoy a great payday that will help fund them attempting to make more races this season.
So we came off an amazing finish at Daytona to wrap up our 2013 SpeedWeeks and then to the West we went. Carl Edwards had been trying to for quite a while to break a winless streak. Well he sure found the luck in the desert of Arizona. At the race in Phoenix, Carl finally broke through and ended his 70-race winless streak. He did it in fitting fashion too. His No. 99 Subway Ford Fusion won the Subway Fresh Fit 500. He broke a personal winless streak while making his sponsor ecstatic. For a race car driver, it really doesn’t get any better than that.
That was another exciting finish with Denny Hamlin going three-wide on the last lap down the backstretch and battling Jimmie Johnson right to the checkered flag for second. Jimmie got it, however, with Denny finishing third. For whatever reason, Denny was pretty frustrated. He climbed out of his No. 11 FedEx car and then basically told the media this car was no better than the old car.
Well that set in motion a swirl of controversy. Denny’s comments rubbed a lot of people the wrong way because here was a driver that started in the rear of the field, he passed 40 cars, almost finished second, but then gets out and blasts the car. A lot of people, including the three manufacturers who for the first time in our sports history worked side-by-side to develop this race car to better our sport, were stung by those comments.
Obviously, the sanctioning body didn’t take too kindly to someone of Denny’s stature in the sport saying what he said about the car after only its second race, so they levied a fine on him. While I understand why NASCAR did it, I also believe there is no question it was somewhat of an over-reaction on their part.
After Phoenix, we stayed out West and headed to Las Vegas. It was another exciting race. Matt Kenseth in his Toyota had a heated 20-lap duel with Kasey Kahne in his Chevrolet. Matt came home the winner for the first time with his brand-new team.
We then left the one-and-a-half mile track and headed for our first short-track race of the year back East. I say welcome back to the old Bristol. What we saw in that race was the kind of action and excitement the joint has been missing the last couple years. We had an amazing Bristol race. It was one I hadn’t seen there in a long time. Kahne, coming off his red-hot second-place finish at Las Vegas, took home the checkered flag at Bristol. He also sent a strong message that he looks like a championship contender.
Bristol also marked the start of the Denny Hamlin/Joey Logano feud. Denny had put Joey in the fence during the race so Joey went down to confront Denny afterward. Heated words were exchanged and a little pushing and shoving but really nothing all that dramatic.
Back in the day, the drivers probably would have traded punches and settled things. However this is the 21st century with social media, so Denny and Joey started a Twitter War, which is quite comical if you stop and think about it.
So everyone left Tennessee and headed back out West to Fontana. While that race isn’t always the most action-packed of events on our schedule, I will be the first one to tell you that this year’s race was probably the best one we’ve ever had there.
There was a lot of action throughout that race. We get down to the end of the race and wouldn’t you know it, the battle is between Denny and Joey again. They were racing hard and battling for the lead. They both were just going for the win. I didn’t see anything intentional with the wreck that happened.
They were bangin’ together and tradin’ paint and, as you always know, something had to give. Unfortunately Denny took a vicious head-on hit at a place on the inside of the track where there weren’t any SAFER barriers. The impact was so violent the car left the ground. I was really concerned for Denny. He did climb out of the car but then quickly crumbled to the ground.
Kyle Busch, who was running third at the time, missed Denny and Joey wrecking, swung to the outside and won the race. Now after the race, Tony Stewart, in classic Tony Stewart fashion went down to confront Joey Logano. Tony was unhappy about a couple things, mainly Joey blocking him on that last restart and Tony made his message crystal clear. On top of all that, Jr. Nation had something to cheer about as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took over the series points lead.
Unfortunately,Denny suffered a severe back injury and now is out of the No. 11 for a few weeks. Joe Gibbs Racing will have Mark Martin take over this week and then Brian Vickers fill in until Denny is physically able to return. There is simply no excuse for not having SAFER barriers all the way around the inside and outside walls of these tracks we go to. I’ve said it time and time again, for whatever reason, a stock car is like a magnet when it comes to finding places at a track where there aren’t SAFER barriers. You have to anticipate and prepare for the worst. I am very sure when we return to Fontana next year that SAFER barriers will be everywhere.
It’s been a whirlwind start to the season. A brand new car at five different-style race tracks has delivered us incredible racing and five different winners. This car is amazing. Qualifying speeds are record-setting. The race paces are fast. We’ve had three- and four-wide racing. We’ve had amazing finishes and even feuds after the finishes.
This is what NASCAR and all of us were looking for with this new car. I swear I have never heard the drivers talk about how much fun they are having driving these things like they are right now. This is the best time in our sport that we’ve had in years. It’s showing up in attendance at the race tracks and in the television ratings.
Well guess what? We’re headed to short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway this weekend and believe you me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.