Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 7, 2010

Turn left. Turn left. Turn left. Turn left. Repeat.

All of America, indeed much of the world, has been focused on Florida this weekend.  No, silly, not that football game in Miami.  Sad to say, the NFL’s championship game long, long ago was totally subsumed to the hype, the hysteria, and the commercials.  Consider that the best estimates are that in the sixty timed minutes of an NFL game there are actually at best eighteen minutes of true football action (some estimates are as low as twelve); and the coverage for the 6:40 kickoff starts at 10:30 a.m. and ends around 10:00 p.m.  Eighteen minutes needs half a day of coverage?  Please.

No the real focus is a few hours up the road in Daytona, where NASCAR is kicking off its season with a week-long series of races that will culminate in the Daytona 500 next weekend.  But the start was something special; a low level minor league race featuring Danica Patrick.  And Danica didn’t do badly.  She started twelfth, ran in the top ten for much of the race, and then got bumped and spun late in the race.  Having made a decent recovery to avoid crashing into the wall, she came from the back of the pack and picked off cars one by one to eventually finish sixth.  Of course, the competition she faced is nothing like what she will have to contend with once she begins her Nationwide Series season in the next few weeks.  But having said that, anyone who loves NASCAR, and I count myself in that group, has to hope that Danica succeeds.

Because NASCAR is in danger of becoming boring.  The introduction of “The Car of Tomorrow” could not have come at a worse time for the sport.  After a couple years of experimentation, it was fully rolled out just as the recession set in.  Even as the number of empty seats at races has increased due to hard-pressed fans not being able to afford to attend, TCOT has led to less racing and more parading in front of those who do show up.  The car is unquestionably safer, and that certainly is a good thing.  But too many of the drivers still seem unable to handle the car well in the traditional bump-drafting, paint-trading, hard, close racing that has always separated NASCAR from other forms of auto racing.

Hopefully that will change with time, but until it does at least the presence of a new and charismatic driver like Patrick, with the obvious additional story line of breaking the gender barrier, will add some flavor to a suddenly vanilla sport.  At the very least the crowds should be bigger on Saturdays, the day the second level Nationwide Series generally gets the green flag.

That’s not to say that her success is guaranteed.  Far from it.  The record of drivers attempting to move from Indy to stock cars is not good.  Juan Pablo Montoya finally cracking the top twelve during the 2009 regular season to qualify for the ten race Chase for the Championship in his third year since moving from Indy cars is the high water mark to date.

The challenge for Danica, as it has been for everyone else who has tried to move from Indy cars to stock car racing comes down to three things. 

One, a stock car weighs about 3500 pounds, while an Indy car weighs 1500.  That single fact makes handling the two profoundly different.

Two, stock car racing is a contact sport, as Danica found out tonight.  She responded admirably, but while close contact racing has declined with the bulky, hard to handle TCOT, the idea at least is still very much a part of the sport.  In Indy racing any contact results in the mantis like things just breaking apart.

Three, and I think most important, stock cars are hot.  No, not hot as in cool, hot as in, well, hot. Indy cars have open cockpits, and the engines are in the rear.  So the driver is constantly driving away from the heat source.  Stock cars are closed, with the engines in front, and the exhaust systems running underneath the cockpit.  So the driver is constantly getting warmed up.  NASCAR drivers know that on a warm June day at Loudon, a key to success is being able to maintain the focus needed to drive a car at very high speeds for three hours while sitting in a hundred degree sauna.

So success for Danica is by no means guaranteed.  But I for one will be pulling for her; and not just because of the shower commercial.  I didn’t say not because of it, I said not JUST because of it.

Another thing that would help, a LOT, would be if NASCAR’s most popular driver became a competitive driver.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has brought a lot of young fans into the sport (though he’s actually a year older than Jimmie Johnson and only three years younger than Jeff Gordon), and is loved by many fans for his humble and straightforward demeanor and of course in no small part for the fact that he is Junior.  But his career is in neutral (at best).  Most observers felt that he would break out when he moved to the Hendrick team for the 2008 season.  But despite having the resources of NASCAR’s strongest house, he hasn’t won since June of 2008, and finished last season in a career-low 25th place.

Rick Hendrick fired Junior’s crew chief in the middle of the 2009 campaign, and ordered a technology and information sharing arrangement between Earnhardt’s team and that of Mark Martin for 2010 (an approach that has worked enormously well for Hendrick’s other two drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.  There’s a long season of racing that’s just about to start, but first early, very preliminary, results (think of it as Dixville Notch reporting in for a Presidential election) have to be considered promising.  On Saturday the first phase of Daytona 500 qualifying was held.  At every other race on the NASCAR schedule, qualifying is done by all drivers running two laps.  The fastest driver starts first, down to the 43rd fastest being the final driver in the field.  At Daytona, that phase happens a week before the race, but it only determines the front row, with the fastest and second fastest cars assured of that honor.  All of the other places will be set next Thursday, in two 150-mile qualifying races.  The two drivers who won their front row places on Saturday will lead the front row for the two “Bud Shootout” races on Thursday.  Race #1 will be led by Mark Martin.  Race #2 will be led by Junior.

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