Track Damage, Red Flags Took Away From Fine Daytona 500
It was everything NASCAR could ask of its season-opener at Daytona International Speedway ... except for a pesky pothole located between turns 1 and 2 that stands to cast a shadow on the spotlight the 33-year-old McMurray deserves to own all his own.
So often we hear of race car drivers battling the track. Perhaps not so literally.
NASCAR's biggest race of the year was halted for two and a half hours for two lengthy repairs to the track surface -- a super gaffe in the sanctioning body's self-proclaimed Super Bowl.
NASCAR initially stopped the race on lap 123 and spent an hour and 42 minutes trying to repair a nine-inch hole located smack in the lower groove racing line. But because of recent heavy rains and unusually cold temperatures, workers had trouble finding the right material to seal the track, and it took longer than usual to seal.
Less than 40 laps later, drivers started noticing the surface breaking up again. Robby Gordon predicted a wreck. Greg Biffle was angry that the rocks coming up from track may have damaged the front splitter on his car.
When the workers arrived again, the hole had doubled in size. And it took another 45 minutes of work to get the track fixed again. During that time, hundreds of fans deserted their grandstand seats and traffic outside the track became bumper-to-bumper heading toward the interstate.
"They need to get some maintenance people from Cleveland, they can fix a pothole in 30 seconds,'' joked fan Mark Dorenkott, who waited out the two delays from his seat in the front grandstands.
It was almost that easy.
Ultimately, the hole was repaired with good ol' race "Bondo" -- a putty-like filler used to help shape race car bodies and for quick race day repairs on cars. By all accounts it held up just long enough for the race to conclude -- a thrilling stand-on-your-feet exhibition of why NASCAR is the most popular form of racing in America.
Unfortunately, that exhibition came six and a half hours after the race started and at the expense of many fans in the once-capacity crowd and likely thousands of television viewers who simply ran out of patience.
Asked after the race if he worried about the repercussions, Daytona International Speedway President Robin Braig conceded, "Well, sure.''
"We're the 'World Center of Racing','' Braig said. "This is the Daytona 500. This is not supposed to happen. And I take full responsibility.''
"But we can come back from this. We know how to fix it.''
Braig said his staff inspected the track Sunday morning -- as it does before every race -- and found no problems with the surface. The track was last paved in 1978 and Braig is considering repaving it next year.
But you should see the new Bistro in the Fan Zone.
Ironically, the recurring theme of this year's NASCAR Speedweeks and its crown jewel, the Daytona 500, was about a new and improved NASCAR that that bent over backwards -- and forwards and sideways -- for its fans with a "let em' race" attitude, faster speeds, and extra overtime chances.
For its part, NASCAR insists it was satisfied with the way the track handled the situation.
"With regard to what happened today, obviously it's not good for the fans, it's not what you would rather have,'' said NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston, who along with Braig addressed the media after the race.
"But anyone who's been a fan of racing very long has sat through rain delays and sat through other things like that. What we do know is those fans who did continue to watch throughout the day saw great racing and a great finish."
Almost to a man, the drivers refused to place the blame solely on the track. They didn't think it ultimately played a role in the race outcome -- despite the fact the race was supposed to end in the afternoon and finished under the lights.
"Track surfaces are going to have problems from time to time,'' Earnhardt said. "This wasn't a fault of NASCAR, it wasn't a fault of Daytona's or nobody's. It was probably more or less everybody's cars beating on the racetrack with trailing arm mounts and tail pipes.
"That's going to knock a hole in some asphalt, I don't care where you're at.''
So should Daytona completely repave?
"It's due, I would say,'' Earnhardt said with smirk.
But this is the Daytona 500 and we've come to expect more.
So depending on your perspective or the spin you believe, NASCAR fans either got ripped off Sunday. ... or they got a whole lot more of a good thing.
"From the racing perspective, you couldn't wish to get your season off to a better start,'' Poston added.
"Obviously the red flags are unfortunate, no one wants to see that. But hopefully what fans will really remember about this race tomorrow and the years to come is that dramatic finish.''
McMurray deserves as much.