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Monday, February 16, 2009
Modern-day 500 more fizzle than sizzle

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR should stop awarding points for the Daytona 500.

Or at least stop calling it "our Super Bowl," which it isn't.

Not anymore, and not by a long shot.

Call it what it is: NASCAR's smash-hit extravaganza preseason exhibition.

NASCAR has always shot for the show above all else, and now that's what it's got in its showcase event: a show. That's all.

This is not meant disrespectfully toward Matt Kenseth. His win here Sunday night was no more, no less a fluke and a nonindicator of how this season will unfold than Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 win of 2008, or Kevin Harvick's in '07.

Should Kenseth go on to win the '09 Cup, it would be in spite of, not because of, his Daytona 500 win. Neither Harvick nor Newman, after winning this race, won another points race in those respective seasons.

Harvick did go on to win the All-Star race of '07 -- his de facto second exhibition win of that year. But at least they call the All-Star race what it is, and don't award points.

Keith Urban
A funny thing happened at the Keith Urban concert Sunday in Daytona … a stock car race broke out.

Never has a Super Bowl winner failed to be crowned NFL champion.

But not since Jeff Gordon in 1997 had a Daytona 500 winner won the season championship until Jimmie Johnson in 2006. And Johnson's championship wasn't so much the fluke as was his 500 win, in an aerodynamic crapshoot where it's far more important to be lucky than good.

In fact, of the first 50 Daytona 500s (Sunday's was the 51st), only five winners, eight times, have gone on to win the Cup, and only three of those were not named Petty -- Johnson, Gordon, and Cale Yarborough in 1977.

So the history of the premier event vis-a-vis the championship was bad enough before NASCAR started fiddling with the show, and kept on, and kept on, until … now, they might as well start sending fireworks skyward from the green flag on and keep it up all race, and have rock bands playing nonstop at the start-finish line, flag to flag.

Look at Sunday night's top five finishers: Kenseth, Harvick, AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer and Elliott Sadler.

Will we get the '09 champion from that group? Unlikely.

Is this an indication, even, of what is to come next week in the California 500? Or Las Vegas the next week? Or Atlanta the next?

Again, unlikely.

So where did the two overwhelming favorites to win the championship this year -- due to their strengths on other tracks -- Carl Edwards and Johnson, finish Sunday? Why, 18th and 31st, respectively.

Here, it's all a crapshoot -- the luck of the draft and the moment, in the aberrant form called restrictor-plate racing, with the manipulated-for-show "new car" that is manipulated even more minutely for plate racing.

This is one of only four plate races. That mechanical manipulation of close racing -- it's close because engines are too stifled for drivers to break away from each other -- is at least bearable for the other three, the summer race here and the two at Talladega, Ala.

But it's not bearable for your showcase, your "Super Bowl."

To Casino de Daytona they added another ham-fisted touch Sunday night. For all the lip service NASCAR gave in preseason to renewed adoration of its fans, who are supposedly so precious in this crashing economy, NASCAR gave them all a backhanded slap in the face, with a clearly unsatisfying incidence of curriculum interruptus -- that would be the medical term for "race suddenly interrupted" -- Sunday night.

For all this terrible strain on fans' wallets, Daytona International Speedway claimed to have sold out the Daytona 500 by Sunday -- that's 160,000 seats, plus the infield crowd -- and then …

Tom Cruise
Celebrities like Tom Cruise got more fan love than many of the drivers at Daytona.

To show its appreciation to fans who likely sacrificed to come here, and to fans watching on television nationwide, NASCAR took all of 15 minutes after the red flag for rain to call the race official and cut it off, a whopping 120 miles short of the advertised distance.

To be sure, Kenseth had calculated and made the right move, passing Sadler on the last lap of green with both knowing rain was imminent, and that this one could be for keeps.

But that whole gaggle was up front because more serious contenders had pitted earlier, either under the previous caution or the previous green.

Weather radar showed a massive front, followed by another, moving toward Daytona Beach. But the least they could have done, for their supposedly beloved fans, was wait more than 15 lousy minutes to call it.

And the radar was misleading. Mostly, what fell on the track was a heavy mist. If they had waited according to established NASCAR practice -- an hour, sometimes much more -- well, by 10 p.m. they could have been running wide open.

At least, then, the roulette wheel at Casino de Daytona would have been given a full and proper spin.

Minutes after the race had been called, I got the first e-mail of protest from a fan, Ken Vronek of Richmond, Va., comparing this to the NFL calling the Super Bowl at the start of the fourth quarter.

That had been my thought precisely, for 152 laps is 380 miles, or only three-fourths of the Daytona 500.

By Monday morning, another fan, Donald Marsh of Concord, N.C., had said it better than any journalist here could have: "This race is starting to get really boring, because the best driver, or fastest car, rarely ever wins the race. The luckiest car wins."

When you think about it, the 51st Daytona 500 was no less an exhibition than last year's when it went the distance, with Newman coming out of nowhere to catch the right push at the right moment to beat the man to beat, Tony Stewart.

And what about '07, when NASCAR disobeyed its own rule about throwing caution flags, failing to throw a caution and freeze the field when rightful winner Mark Martin was ahead, and recognizing instead Harvick's last-second charge out of nowhere?

When Dale Earnhardt finally won this race in 1998, the old swagger returned, and he forcefully predicted he was off and running toward what would have been a record eighth championship. If anybody could pull off the unlikely double, it seemed that Earnhardt -- NASCAR's most mystical and near-mythical character -- could. So many of us in the media endorsed his forecast at the time.

Well, Earnhardt failed to win the championship -- indeed, failed to win another race -- that year. That ought to tell you everything you need to know about the modern-day Daytona 500.

Once upon a time, when racing here was real and not a show-biz production with restrictor plates and dreamed-up cars, the Daytona 500 was at least a true contest, and a substantially better indicator of who the strongest driver of the year would be.

Six times in the first 20 years, the Daytona 500 winner won the season title.

Lee Petty went from winning the first one to winning the championship of 1959. Richard Petty launched four of his seven championships with wins here. And Yarborough's double in '77 was before restrictor plates.

So NASCAR ought to thank its very lucky stars for Jimmie Johnson's highly unlikely double of '06. Otherwise, calling this the "Super Bowl" would be blatant, empty hype of a once-pure race, long defaced for the sake of the show.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.