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Sunday, February 20, 2011
A bad day for some big names

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Young Trevor Bayne was thankful about winning the Daytona 500 in his first try.

Some of the biggest names in NASCAR were saying thank goodness it's only race No. 1.

Bayne made history and put the legendary Wood Brothers team back in Victory Lane, a golden moment for NASCAR. But three Cup champions (Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson) and three other Chase drivers from 2010 (Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick) got a lump of coal.

That sextet of drivers put themselves in a big hole to start the 2011 season. If an over-burdened engine didn't get them, a day filled with wild wrecks did.

"I don't know if you guys noticed, but it was pretty wild out there today," said Carl Edwards, the runner-up to Bayne on Sunday. "I made a point of just trying to be there at the end."

So much for the pairs racing spreading the field out to eliminate the Big One. It took only 29 laps to wreck 14 cars in the typical restrictor-plate track big crash.

Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner, already was done for the day when that happened. The No. 29 Chevy engine expired on the 23rd lap.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth, who finished fifth in the 2010 Chase, was done Sunday when he hit the wall on Lap 133.

"The bottom fell out of it," Harvick said. "We never blow motors. It just let loose. It's just one of those things that happens."

Harvick, the regular-season points leader last year, begins 2011 tied for 36th place. Harvick was already back home in North Carolina before the race ended.

Before he left, a reporter in the garage asked him if he was worried about his points situation.

"You don't come very much do you," Harvick said to the reporter. "This is the first race."

NASCAR has one of the longest seasons in sports with 36 races that count toward the title. There's plenty of time to climb up the standings.

However, a bad day in 2011 is a much bigger hit than it was in 2010. The new simplified points system, known as the 43/1 plan, is easier to understand for everyone. It's also more difficult to make up for a bad finish.

The winner now can receive 47 or 48 times as many points (including bonus points) than the last-place finisher. In the old system it was about 5½ times as much.

So a finish near the back is a big ouch for championship contenders. But this race has one bit of good news for the bad finishers.

Bayne scored zero points. Under new rules, he does not earn Cup points after declaring he would run for the Nationwide Series title.

Edwards, a likely title contender, earned 42 points for finishing second. He called it the most painful second place of his career, but he sees the big picture in the new system.

"Right now it's going to be a long night for me," Edwards said. "I will think of 100 things I could have done to win this. But when we roll into Phoenix next weekend I'll think, 'Hey, this is OK.'

"There is a very bright side to our day today. Considering the chaos out there today, it's really nice to get out of here with a good points day."

The race had a record 16 cautions for 60 laps. Some of the best racers in the sport couldn't avoid the carnage.

Five-time champion Johnson finished 27th and four-time Cup champ Gordon was right behind him in 28th.

Both drivers were involved in the big wreck on Lap 29, and both teams did a good job of repairing the cars to get back on the track and salvage something from a tough day.

Gordon was frustrated about drivers pairing up toward the back of the field so early in the race.

"I totally get the two-car draft," Gordon said. "What I don't understand is why they are doing it three-wide for 28th [place]. They need to let it thin out a little bit and be more harm-free instead of pushing and shoving up the middle and down the back straightaway. What are they doing?"

Jeff Gordon I totally get the two-car draft. What I don't understand is why they are doing it three-wide for 28th [place]. They need to let it thin out a little bit and be more harm-free instead of pushing and shoving up the middle and down the back straightaway. What are they doing?

-- Jeff Gordon

Roush Fenway Racing teammates Kenseth and Biffle ended the race in the garage with mangled race cars. Kenseth was 34th and Biffle finished 35th.

Jeff Burton, Harvick's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, blew an engine and finished 36th. It was the first time in five years RCR lost two cars in the same race to blown engines.

But pairs racing is a new world, causing the push car to quickly overheat. Burton won his qualifying race Thursday, but that was only 60 laps in cooler conditions than the 80-degree afternoon Sunday.

"We are asking a lot out of the engines here to run 240 [degrees] or so," Burton said. "I thought we were well within our limits, but you never know."

Three of the best teams in Cup -- Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing -- didn't have a driver finish in the top five.

RCR won three of four restrictor-plate races last year. Its best finisher Sunday was Clint Bowyer in 17th after he wrecked near the end of the race.

It was topsy-turvy kind of day. A 20-year-old baby-faced kid gave one of NASCAR's most historic teams its first Daytona 500 victory in 35 years, a surprising moment of glory.

But several drivers who hope to end the 2011 season with championship glory have a lot of ground to make up.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.