Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 21, 2016

500 Miles And 6 Inches Later, NASCAR Is Back

One can’t write objectively about NASCAR without mentioning the challenges the sport has faced in recent years. The period of rapid growth through the last decade of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st hit the wall of the Great Recession; dreams of ever larger profits wrecked just as surely as a Sprint Cup car sliding up a track and into the SAFER Barrier. Financing a race team through the 36 races of NASCAR’s annual schedule is a breathtakingly expensive proposition, and owners have always been heavily dependent on corporate sponsors, many of which pulled out of the sport when the economy went south. Smaller teams folded and even the sport’s major players were challenged to maintain the multiple teams of cars that they had been racing for years.

Recently the on-track product has also been a problem, as successive generations of cars designed to rigid specifications produced increasingly dull racing with limited passing. That and the recession’s impact on the wallets of fans in turn led to steady declines in attendance all around the country. From smaller tracks like New Hampshire Motor Speedway to major venues like the track in Charlotte that sits in the very heart of North Carolina stock car racing country, entire sections of seating have been removed or covered over by advertising. On top of all that Jeff Gordon, one of the most popular drivers, retired to the broadcast booth after last season and Tony Stewart, another fan favorite, has announced that 2016 will be his final year behind the wheel.

The sport began its new year with the annual ritual of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, culminating Sunday with the first Sprint Cup race on every year’s calendar, the Daytona 500. In the nine days leading up to the 500 fans take in a packed schedule, including a 200-mile ARCA race, the Sprint Unlimited exhibition featuring pole winners and championship Chase contenders from 2015, pole qualifying for the 500 and the two Budweiser Duels that determine the order of the rest of Sunday’s field, as well as the first 2016 races in NASCAR’s truck and stock car developmental series.

As a reminder of racing’s problems those who were there watched all this at a dramatically renovated track. Dubbed “Daytona Rising,” the $400 million makeover was marketed as an effort to improve the fan experience by expanding entrance areas, installing wider and more comfortable seating and adding more concessions. But the project also eliminated the back stretch grandstands and reduced Daytona’s seating capacity from 167,000 to 101,000. Still if there were fewer seats to fill at stock car racing’s most hallowed ground, the major investment in bringing the track up to date was also a sign that perhaps NASCAR is finally turning a corner.

An improved Daytona Speedway was not the only such positive sign as racing’s new season got underway. At the beginning of Speedweeks NASCAR Chairman Brian France announced a major change in the sport’s business model. Thirty-six franchises are being awarded to the owners of the teams that have raced consistently over the past three years. The franchises, said to be worth in the “single-digit millions,” guarantee a spot on the starting grid as well as a piece of NASCAR’s revenue. This will take some of the pressure off owners to constantly court sponsors and provide a measure of fiscal stability; especially because just like in other sports the franchises can be sold. Thus an owner who decides to leave the sport has something more than used cars to offer for sale.

Starting next week in Atlanta, the Sprint Cup series will also feature yet another new rules package for car design and setup, the fourth in as many years. However unlike the previous ones this package has been developed with considerable input from leading drivers. The changes should result in increased downforce on the cars, resulting in less grip and a bigger role for the driver in constantly manipulating the car. They should also allow the cars to race closer together and make high-speed passing easier, a result that will be heartily welcomed by drivers and fans alike.

Of course nothing will brighten the outlook for NASCAR more than exciting racing, and fans got that on Sunday with a thrilling Daytona 500. Chase Elliott, the 20-year old second generation driver given the both enviable and daunting role of replacing Gordon in the number 24 Chevrolet, showed he has the talent to compete at his sport’s highest level by becoming the youngest driver to win the pole for the 500. But he also proved he has some learning to do when he couldn’t handle heavy traffic in lap 19, spinning into the infield in a wreck that effectively ended his day.

The race also ended earlier than planned for two other fan favorites. Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver and a pre-race favorite based on how his car had been performing in practices, brought sustained cheers from the crowd when he took the lead shortly after Elliot’s crash. But as the race went on he fought handling problems and was shuffled back into mid-pack. With the laps starting to wind down Junior tried too bold of a move in lap 169 and spun out, his car hitting an inside wall hard before coming to rest on the infield grass. A few laps later Danica Patrick’s number 10 was clipped by Greg Biffle which sent her sailing into the infield. Amazingly she was able to keep the car going straight even as it bounced twice into mid-air at high speed; but the damage was enough to knock her out of the race.

In the end it was Toyota and JGR Racing that dominated the day. For much of the latter part of the race three of the four Gibbs cars vied for the lead along with the one car team of Furniture Row Racing driven by Martin Truex Jr., also in a Toyota. The leader for most of those laps was Denny Hamlin, but he had been shuffled back to fourth in favor of teammate Matt Kenseth.

As the cars headed into Turn 3 for the final time Hamlin swung high and with a push from Joey Logano accelerated towards Kenseth. The leader went up the track, trying to block Hamlin, who dove between Kenseth and Truex, who was at the bottom. The move caused Kenseth’s car to get loose and fall back, but Hamlin and Truex came out of Turn 4 together for the final sprint to the checkered flag. Truex edged in front, but then Hamlin pulled next to him, accelerating from the side draft. At the line Hamlin’s black number 11 nosed ahead of the orange 78 by no more than six inches, the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.

It was Hamlin’s first win at the 500, and it was the first time in the ten years since the brand joined NASCAR that a Toyota won the Great American Race. Four of the first five cars across the finish line were Toyota’s, and three of them were JGR teammates. By a margin of eleven one-thousandths of a second Denny Hamlin ensured himself a place in racing’s history books. A new NASCAR season has begun. While Brian France would no doubt love it to be historic, he’ll surely be happy if it’s the one in which his sport starts accelerating again.

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