Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands in Victory Lane after winning the 2014 Daytona 500.
Jerry Markland / Getty Images North America
By Darrell Waltrip
Back when the kickoff to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was approaching, the one word you heard repeatedly was "excited." Folks were excited about the tweaks to the rules packages. They were excited about a new qualifying system which is definitely more exciting. They were excited about the expanded Chase field and the way to make the Chase. They were excited about the new driver/team/crew chief pairings.
You combine all that together, along with the normal excitement and anticipation a new season brings, anyway, and, well, the excitement factor in NASCAR was off the chart. Now that we are two races into the season, a new word has surfaced. It's three letters and no, it's not OMG or LOL. It's F-U-N. I am hearing that word across the board about how this season is a lot of fun.
People are really having fun for a change. Folks at home and in the grandstands are enjoying what they are seeing. The drivers are having fun because their cars are better to drive. Just look at Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he won the Daytona 500. Could you have had any more fun than he did? This just wasn't another win for him. This one was super special and he had fun up to the hilt. It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of. The fun meter was pegged that Sunday night in Daytona.
Then, we get to Phoenix last week and the first true attempt at the new qualifying format in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Did you hear what the drivers had to say afterward? They talked about it being fun and different. Stepping outside the box and doing something different after years of doing something a certain way has to be fun.
So here we are at only our third race of the year and we are at the center of Fun City -- Las Vegas. We're in a town where there is no shortage of glitz and glamour. This race features a lot of pageantry, and that makes coming out here a lot of fun.
There are just so many things to enjoy in our sport right now that I think everyone is enjoying it. I know I do. Except for having that pesky gall bladder of mine taken out a few weeks ago, this is easily the most fun start to a season that I have had in a long, long time.
One person who is right there alongside of Dale Jr. when it comes to having a boatload of fun is obviously Kevin Harvick. In only his second race for Stewart-Haas Racing, Kevin not only wins the race but wins it in such dominating fashion. If you ever want an example of what we say "his car is on a rail," then look no further to last Sunday's race. That car was simply unbelievable last Sunday.
I think we are also beginning to see the benefit of NASCAR eliminating the ride-height rule beginning this season. It now has allowed teams to play around in some areas that were closed off to them previously. Sometimes when there is a major rule change like this one was, there are a couple of teams that get their arms around it first and make a lot of noise on race day. I think Kevin, new crew chief Rodney Childers and the entire No. 4 team have really done their homework.
I had talked about at the end of last year that these alliances the smaller teams have with the bigger teams really came to the forefront with Kurt Busch in the No. 78 car. I think Sunday you saw another example of that because, as most of you know, Stewart-Haas Racing has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. Also look at it this way: At the Daytona 500, a Hendrick Motorsports car won the race. Now right on the heels of that you have what you might call a cousin to Hendrick Motorsports winning the second race of the season.
The benefit of an alliance for these smaller teams, with a bigger team, is immeasurable. Just the wealth of information that is shared is worth its weight in gold. I said going into this season that the combination of Kevin and Rodney moving to Stewart-Haas with its Hendrick alliance would be a powerful combination. Here we are in only the second race of the season and they are in Victory Circle.
With this new Chase format it is pretty much a given that "if you win, you are in" the Chase. Don't lose sight on the fact that there will still be teams that make it in on points to round out the new 16-team field. I don't think we've had 16 different winners by the time the Chase has started, in like forever. So being high up in the points is still going to have huge importance. The other thing is you have to be 30th or better in points by the time Richmond in September is over. You could have two wins under your belt, be 31st in points and guess what doesn't happen? You don't make the Chase and have a chance to win the championship.
So I suspect we'll see a car or two make it into this year's Chase on points. Still, the emphasis is on winning. We heard it and saw it at Phoenix last Sunday. Trust me, Dale Jr. and Kevin Harvick aren't going to coast for the next 24 races simply because they already have a win under their belt and pretty much know they are in the Chase. They will be going after more wins and be even more in the Chase.
We've already gotten a glimpse of some teams that are really good. We've seen some teams that if they look at themselves in the mirror, they have to admit they still have some work to do. Then there are those teams that simply aren't that good and they have a ton of work to do.
The No. 13 of Casey Mears and crew chief Bootie Barker have been a real pleasant surprise this early in the season. They are one of those smaller teams that has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. They've put a Daytona 500 10th-place finish together with a 14th-place finish at Phoenix last weekend. Like the No. 78 team last year that also had the Childress alliance, maybe the No. 13 team will be the "little team that could" this year.
"All I Want To Do Is Have Some Fun" by Sheryl Crow is an appropriate song for right now. Some guys are having a lot of fun. There are still a lot of drivers that have to get there. I know one driver in particular that just announced his fun plans for May. Kurt Busch announced he will drive the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. It's going to be a huge undertaking on his part, but he has the talent to do really well in both events. I am excited for him. Just like the racing this weekend in Las Vegas, it will be double the fun to watch and see how that how Kurt does in both races in one day at the end of May.