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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If the Daytona 500 is half as wild as Saturday's Nationwide Series race, hold on.
And maybe say a prayer.
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (6) collected Kyle Busch (54) and Kurt Busch in the pileups Saturday night at Daytona.|
Brad Keselowski, who finished second to James Buescher in what turned into a wreck-fest over the final 15 laps of the Nationwide race, will. His biggest fear is what we saw over the final 500 yards of this 300-mile demolition derby at Daytona International Speedway.
He's not alone.
With apologies to Buescher for not focusing more on his first victory in NASCAR's second-tier series, what happened that allowed the 21-year-old Turner Motorsports driver to win is a cause for concern.
When to throw the caution?
As third-place Elliott Sadler said, drivers in all series applauded the governing body when it eliminated racing back to the yellow in 2003. They realized the potential dangers of a helpless driver in a wrecked car being pile-drived as a driver coming off the final turn blindly races for the start-finish line.
Particularly on the closing lap.
Particularly in a restrictor-plate race at Daytona, where speeds reach more than 200 mph.
With an 11-car pileup coming to the checkered, NASCAR waited for what Keselowski estimated to be six seconds before throwing the caution. Had it been thrown as soon as the demolition derby began, there's a chance Keselowski might have been awarded the win as the leader when the field was frozen.
Instead, NASCAR waited until Buescher, 11th coming off the final turn, approached the finish line.
Fortunately, nobody was injured further by allowing the race to play out. But with expectations for another wild finish in Sunday's "Great American Race," as there often is here, the sport might not be so lucky.
"There's no doubt to me that the most dangerous aspect of the sport that's left is the yellow-flag situation on the closing laps of a race," Keselowski said.
Keselowski was quick to note his comments weren't based on whether an earlier caution would have given him the win. And if anybody is going to be careful with his mouth, it's going to be the Penske Racing driver, who was penalized last season for what were perceived as negative comments about fuel injection.
But Keselowski's point was spot on.
"When I look at the sport and I look at the most dangerous frontier, it's not the next head-and-neck system, it's getting hit from a car that is six or seven seconds from a wreck but has to keep going because the yellow is not out," he said.
"It eventually will happen where they hit a very slow car at a very high rate of speed, and it will not be good."
The same argument was made after the 2007 Daytona 500, when Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin were allowed to race to the checkered after all hell broke loose behind them.
NASCAR officials defended their decision then and again on Saturday, saying they allowed for more time because it was the last lap, there weren't cars directly ahead of the leaders and the leaders automatically slow down at the finish line.
Buescher didn't believe he put anybody in danger, and maybe he didn't.
|James Buescher rounded the final turn at Daytona in 11th place, but he crossed the finish line first after dodging a race-ending "big one."|
But what about the next time? What if the same scenario happens on Sunday, when the odds of one or more green-white-checkered finish are high?
"When I think about what I'm most nervous about, I'm most nervous about the last lap, being at the front pack, being wrecked and stopped in the middle of the field, and some guy from 35th, knowing the yellow is not going to come out for another six seconds whaling me going 180 [mph] while I'm going 5 or 10, or when I'm maybe stopped," Keselowski said.
It's a tough call for NASCAR. Officials are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
"I think I would rather see the sport lean on the cautious side," Keselowski said.
Most drivers, if they are honest, would agree. Even Buescher, who admittedly was concerned over when the yellow might come out.
But Buescher was more concerned with what it would cost him in terms of a finish. Keselowski was concerned over whether it could cause somebody serious harm.
Don't be surprised if we see same scenario on Sunday. You won't see the two-car dancing as much as you saw in the Nationwide race because of all the rule changes NASCAR made to prevent it in the 500. But as we saw in the Budweiser Shootout with wrecks of eight, six and nine cars in a field of 25, catastrophe lurks at every turn.
There were wrecks of 19, 14 and 11 over the final 15 laps Saturday.
That is the allure of restrictor-plate racing for many fans. It's why there will be more eyes on Sunday's race than a normal Sprint Cup event just as there were more eyes on Saturday's race than a typical Nationwide event.
"We walk a fine line in this sport between daredevils and chess players," Keselowski said. "It's important to have tracks like this that maybe average it out a little bit.
"I think not a lot of people watch chess matches. I've never seen one televised. Maybe I turned the channel and never watched it. Not very exciting."
Saturday was a thrill a minute.
And there were great storylines that could have played out. There was Danica Patrick starting from the pole, hoping to become the first woman to win a NASCAR event. There was Dale Earnhardt Jr. getting pushed to the front by Austin Dillon in a black No. 3 car that looked strikingly like the one Earnhardt's father drove.
There was Tony Stewart trying to tie the late Earnhardt for the most Nationwide wins at Daytona with seven. There was Kyle Busch driving his first Nationwide race in his own car with brother Kurt pushing him to the front.
Patrick's day basically ended on Lap 49 when JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt sent her for a wild spin into the wall. Stewart and the Busch brothers all were involved in the final crash battling for the win.
That left the day to Buescher.
We likely could see another surprise winner in another surprise fashion on Sunday. Remember, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne stunned the world by winning last year's 500.
"You never know 'til you see the checkered flag what's really going to happen," said Sadler, who thought he was going to push Stewart to the win.
The uncertainty of Daytona is what makes it such a thrill.
That also is what makes it so scary.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.