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NASCAR Is Alive and Well after 'Best Daytona 500 in Years'

Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (88), Denny Hamlin (11) and Brad Keselowski (2) during the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Remember that ‘I’m done with NASCAR!!’ viral video that did the rounds a season or two ago?

There was a high chance that after Daytona Speedweeks 2014 there would be more fans making such statements.

The 2013 season was the worst in recent memory, marred by awful racing, cheating and controversy. Then we had the farcical off-season where Brian France decided to fix these problems by making the Chase system even more utterly nonsensical. So with all credibility shot and the sport on the verge of becoming a laughing stock, Daytona Speedweeks 2014 was a decisive moment for NASCAR.

Luckily, around 50 laps into the 2014 Daytona 500 was when we felt a pulse. And a heart that, despite everything, is still beating strong.

Not long after the restart after the rain delay, I was utterly enthralled at the breathless action. I looked over at the lap counter – and realized we were barely past lap 60.

It was then that I realized we were in for a special night of racing.

The fact that NASCAR’s favorite son won the biggest race in the sport is of course a bonus. But crucially, Daytona Speedweeks 2014 was where NASCAR started to reconnect with what people really love about the sport – the racing.

Point bonuses, gimmicks, commercialism, rivalries – these are all just tertiary elements. If the racing is no good, NASCAR doesn’t have a purpose. And whilst it seems that Brian France has completely forgotten that in his crusade to turn NASCAR into NFL Lite, there are certain people high up in NASCAR who are still well aware of this.

(At least we know which fans France claims he was listening to when he dreamt up the new Chase changes – the dribbling cretins spamming Twitter with rage and not realizing that what they were watching was a re-run of the previous year’s race during a rain delay.)

Back in December a special test session was conducted at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the aim being to fix the Gen-6 racecar’s most glaring issue; chronic aero dependency crippling racing to the point that side-by-side and nose-to-tail racing, the lifeblood of NASCAR, was almost impossible.  The tweaks made to the racecars in the aftermath of this test seemed ineffective – but I’ll be damned if they didn’t do the trick at  Daytona.

30 laps into the 2014 Daytona 500, it didn’t look good. The train was a-rollin’ round, right up against the wall, with no-one even trying to make any overtakes.

Then something changed. Kyle Busch and a small crew of cars dove to the bottom and tried to make something happen on the troublesome bottom groove.

And it worked.

Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers Paul Menard (27), Brad Keselowski (2) and Danica Patrick (10) during the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having much fewer cars pushing him than the top line, Busch moved to the lead.

It was as if the field collectively had an epiphany. You can trust racing grooves other than the outside. You don’t have to endlessly follow the top-groove freight train around for fear of losing the draft. You can make moves, mix it up, drop back and move up at will. Just like classic restrictor-plate racing of yore.

And after the rain delay, the race started to come to life.

Drivers started going 3 and 4-wide, lap after lap. The lead changed hands a staggering 42 times compared to 13 in the 2013 edition.  Suddenly, Daytona didn’t just have one effective racing line – it had however many you could fit in the width of the track between the wall and the yellow line.  We had already seen this in the Sprint Unlimited, but that was a non-points exhibition. Here, drivers were prepared to trust multiple lines and race each other in a points-paying race; the biggest one of the year. And that is the biggest validation possible of the various Gen-6 modifications.

The woeful 2013 Daytona 500 may not have entirely been the Gen-6’s fault. The 2010 repaving certainly had an effect – and we’ve seen at Bristol just how badly a repave can kill the racing at a given racetrack. So perhaps now, four years down the line, the track surface is starting to regain some of the old bumpy charm.

Perhaps the rain delay also helped? The rain scrubbed the track clean of any rubber buildup, meaning no one line had more grip than another, and the engines ran faster due to cool temperatures at night. Darrell Waltrip declared in commentary shortly after the restart that ‘Now they’ve got all the grip they need, they can do anything they want to with this racecar.’ The new-found confidence the drivers had in their machines was no coincidence. Perhaps NASCAR should consider a return to the ‘day-into-night’ setting, which was the backdrop for epic finales like the 2007, 2008 and 2010 Daytona 500s? Daytona certainly seems a better place to race once the sun’s gone down.

But in spite of all of this, we should give some credit to NASCAR; they made changes to the Gen-6, and it seems to be moving towards a nice balance.  The key was to give drivers back some confidence in their machines and stability in heavy traffic, and a combination of having a year’s experience with the troublesome racecar plus NASCAR’s changes seem to have achieved this to a certain extent. The reaction post-race was certainly positive, with many declaring it the best Daytona 500 in recent memory – and not just because NASCAR’s favorite son took the victory.

Feb 23, 2014; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Kurt Busch (41) leads a pack of drivers during the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the real acid tests will come when the Cup circus hits the intermediates tracks. Because it’s at tracks like Charlotte, Texas, Atlanta and others where the Gen-6 really needs to step up. In the days of the much-missed Gen-4, cars could slide and bounce along side by side lap after lap, and even rub and bang on each other without much effect. Since the COT’s introduction, it’s largely been high line or no line, and woe betide anyone who tries making a move on the inside without enough air on the nose.

2014 will only be the start of the revival for one of the world’s motorsport totems if the upward curve can continue. One great Speedweeks a season does not make – but for Dale Jr and many fans, it certainly gets it off to an amazing start.

The road back to glory for NASCAR begins here.

Tags: Austin Dillon Beyond The Flag Brad Keselowski Dale Earnhardt Jr Daytona 500 Daytona International Speedway Kyle Busch NASCAR NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint Cup Series

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