Friday, July 5, 2013

NASCAR, the Underestimated Sport: Five Questions for Daytona

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Triple-digit temperatures, cookouts and fireworks. It's summertime and that means a return to Daytona International Speedway where speeds are high and drivers are on edge. The "big one" lurks around every corner just waiting to take out half the field. Mangled sheet metal and bruised egos are what many will be left with at the end of the day.

There are many questions swirling around this weekend, though the biggest relate to the news that broke on Thursday regarding confiscated parts from several Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series teams. All told 31 teams (16 Sprint Cup and 15 Nationwide) had roof flap spacers confiscated by the sanctioning body. NASCAR will be looking into the situation and will determine any penalties and fines early next week. NASCAR is serious about safety and the roof flaps are of the utmost importance at high speed tracks like Daytona. You can bet there will be a lot of talk about this in the coming days.

But let's focus on the racing for now. Here are my five questions for this weeks Coke Zero 400.

Will the racing at Daytona be better this time around? As many remember, the Daytona 500 was viewed as a bust; the Gen 6 didn't deliver, and people were put to sleep. Cautious actions while inching towards Saturday night are quite understandable. However, will we all be amazed at what goes on at the two-and-a-half-miler? The answer is yes, but not because the racing is better. I believe we approached the new car with unreasonable expectations. It wasn't going to be perfect in its first race, but we all thought it would be due to the hyperbole in the car‘s marketing. So, since we've gotten two restrictor-plate races under our belts, we can look at this race with wise, unfazed eyes.

What’s the real issue, Jimmie Johnson or the restart box? Here we go again with this issue. On Sunday, Johnson bobbled at a late restart while on the front row. This is the third time this has happened, and it ended up with him spinning out. What is the problem, the driver or the overall conditions of the restarts? On one hand, the No. 48 is the reoccurring factor all three times. Johnson is obviously frustrated with himself; when racers mess up something as simple as going at the green flag, they beat themselves up. But maybe it isn’t so easy. The whole concept of a restart box is unnecessarily confusing. Some tracks don’t have the area marked well, or maybe the marks have faded away over time, or the leader doesn’t completely understand what’s going on. With all this in mind, one-third of the problem is caused by the restart protocol, but the other two-thirds are at the hands of Mr. Five-Time.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: a winner on restrictor plates again? It has been almost ten years since Junior has won at a restrictor plate track on the Cup circuit. The problem isn’t his competitiveness; he’s always been near the front, usually in the runner-up position. The issue is his mindset. I’ve said this about him a thousand times, and it still rings true: Junior’s performance is directly related to his attitude. There is nothing more controlling than emotions, and his have always been more weighty on his own personal scale. As of late, he seems more peppy. So, who knows, maybe he’ll shake off the dust and get the win.

Why is Denny Hamlin avoiding the inevitable? A hit to the wall during the Kentucky race raised alarms for Hamlin; medical personnel were waiting for him when he went back to the garage. As it turned out, he just hit his knee against the steering wheel and was a bit stunned. The time between the hit and the interview with Hamlin that cleared everything up, fans and media members were panicked, frightened that his back injury had worsened. Many question why he’s still out there, with that extra pang of fear residing in the hidden section of his chest. He wants to be Superman. Athletes are made out to be strong and invincible, so there is a standard to live up to. But this isn’t a comic book. There is no turning back a page, rereading the signs, scanning over the graphics again. This is all real. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to him. He could still be paralyzed by the entire sequence of events. Either way, someone needs to shake him, wake him up and push him into reality. He needs surgery, and it can’t be put off any longer.

Is NASCAR the new American Past Time? They say baseball is the all-American sport, and it’s been that way since the 1890s. Lately, it seems that racing has taken over, and it’s in a very festive way. NASCAR has to be one of the most patriotic sports; the specialized paint schemes, the fanfare surrounding Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, and the involvement with various branches of the military show how much the sport values our country. So, what is keeping this from overthrowing baseball and becoming the number one sport in America? It’s got likable characters, excitement, passion - something that baseball is slightly lacking nowadays. There are no Babe Ruths or Jackie Robinsons anymore. There are so many teams and so many games, it gets cluttered. I’m not bashing the MLB at all, I’m showing how NASCAR is more comfortable and simple, while being deep and engaging at the same time. It would take a lot to become the sport that everyone goes to see and talks about on Mondays at the water cooler during work, but it could be done.

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