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Sunday, February 24, 2013
Don't call the Daytona 500 boring

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin didn't sleep particularly well after watching the horrific end of Saturday's Nationwide Series race. He woke up Sunday with a sick feeling in his stomach over the number of fans who were injured when Kyle Larson's car ripped through the catch fence on the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway.

So don't tell him the Daytona 500 was boring.

Many of you did. Social media was full of complaints, calling the Great American Race won by Jimmie Johnson a "snore." One of you said it was the "WORST race in years."

Even some of the drivers complained during much of the first 140 laps, which saw a train of cars running around the top lane. At one point under caution Clint Bowyer said on a live radio interview, "I'm a fan of this sport just like the people in the stands. I want to see some action."

Mark Martin
The race-ending wreck that injured at least 28 spectators in Saturday night's Nationwide Series race rattled NASCAR veteran Mark Martin.

We saw a lot of action at the end of the Nationwide race, when Larson's car went airborne into the catch fence when the front end was severed, sending a tire and other debris into the stands.

That led to a lot of action at local hospitals, particularly at nearby Halifax Heath, where one fan suffered what at one point was a life-threatening head injury from Larson's tire.

On Sunday, we saw a great finish with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making a last-lap move on the inside lane -- which had stalled much of the day -- to finish second to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Nobody was hurt.

Nobody left with a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach.

"I was happy we were able to race and not have a huge accident," Martin said.

In other words, it was a good race.

Not great. But good enough that people shouldn't waste the next week criticizing the debut of the Gen-6 car.

"The cars -- it's a great way to start the season," Earnhardt said. "The car is doing everything we hoped it would do. … It's a great way to start the season. The car is doing everything we hoped it would do. I think it will just get better."

That's not to say Earnhardt wasn't frustrated at times. He knew he had a fast car and couldn't do much with it because nobody wanted to go with him on the low line.

"Nobody wants to go with anybody," he told crew chief Steve Letarte at one point.

Jeff Gordon said the same thing, radioing, "I think we're fast enough to get past a lot of these cars. If cars step out with us we could make it work."

Unfortunately, not enough cars wanted to risk going backward until Johnson and a small group of friends made the bottom line work well enough to get to the front at the end.

"The cars are pretty sensitive to side-drafting," Johnson said. "That is some of what we saw. When we were running single file we were just trying to get to the finish. We've all crashed so much. … I just believe a lot of competitors wanted to get to the last pit stop and race for it instead of tearing up their equipment."

That it took so long for the hard racing to begin didn't make the car a failure.

"I liked it," Earnhardt said. "The package is really good. The surface is still relatively new. If we had the old surface with this car it would have been an incredible race, people sliding around and wearing tires out."

Earnhardt believes with a few tweaks to the package the racing could be incredible with the current surface. Whether that means giving back some of the spoiler that was reduced to almost nothing, or adjusting the shark fin on the left rear window, or something else, remains to be seen.

NASCAR will take the input from this race and make adjustments before the next plate race at Talladega in May if necessary. It won't rip this new car apart and start over.

There's no reason to.

Reigning champion Brad Keselowski said Earnhardt was "spot on" with his assessment that the package will be really good with a few adjustments. Others agreed.

And you didn't sense they were saying this because the governing body has spent the past few months preaching for them to accentuate the positive about the new car that already has brought manufacturer identity back to the sport.

"Racing is more than side by side and crashing," winning crew chief Chad Knaus said. "The race was actually pretty good if you go back and look at the nuts and bolts of it."

If NASCAR made a mistake with the car, it was overhyping it to a level it couldn't possibly live up to.

And remember, the true test doesn't come for two more weeks, when the series moves to Las Vegas. NASCAR has spent more time working to improve racing at mile-and-a-half tracks that dominate the circuit than anywhere else.

It's highly unlikely you'll see a single-file freight train there.

Be patient.

"You know, one of the things that made it hard to pass was nobody … they wouldn't get organized on the bottom," Martin said. "You could because there at the end, when they got a good line organized, it got to be pretty dangerous.

"But the top groove was the preferred groove. And I don't think that had a lot to do with the Gen-6 as much as everybody was flying, the cars were fast and the cars seemed to like the momentum you'd get off the corner."

Sure, there were lulls. There are lulls in every race, just as there are in almost every sport. But don't call it boring because it wasn't side by side for 200 laps, because there weren't cars flying into the catch fence with debris showering fans.

If you had a sick feeling in your stomach because you thought the racing was bad, think about the sick feeling you had on Saturday as emergency workers took fans out of the track on stretchers.

"We're headed in the right direction," Earnhardt said. "We may not be consistently each week. But I thought today for some reason it just felt like we're on the right track as a sport. That's got me really excited.

"It's still a brand-new car. We've got a whole season to improve it and learn how to make it tick. Looking forward to that."

So sleep well.