And Another Thing

JG columnist Ben Smith talks about the upcoming NASCAR season

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Ben Smith

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Kevin Harvick, who won the Daytona 500 in 2007, is Ben Smith’s pick to win the race this year, but Harvick is also driving his first race for Stewart/Haas racing.

Daytona 500 a crapshoot

– Spring came in for me on Thursday, with thunderstorms and temps that weren’t warm, but at least hinted at it. And, yes, stock cars on my TV.

On the menu was what used to be called the Twin 125s but is now called the Budweiser Duel at Daytona. But all of it is Daytona week, and Daytona week has always been the first hint for me that the green season is out there, all rumors to the contrary.

For some, it’s robins or pitchers and catchers reporting or the first glimpse of something besides the standard February palette (white and gray with a side of gray and white). For me, though, it’s J.J. and Dale Jr. ’n’ them, and the first Darrell Waltrip sighting.

And so Thursday was the Duels, and Sunday is Big Daddy, aka the 500. They’ll drop the green and 43 drivers you’ve mostly heard of will go tearing off toward the usual mayhem, and I’ll put it down to spring fever my compulsion to pick a winner.

Fools never rushed in any faster.

That’s because of all the races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Daytona is the crapshoot of all crapshoots, for at least a couple of reasons. One is that it’s the first race of the year and, with a few notable exceptions, no one really knows what anyone else has. And two, it’s a restrictor plate race, the single most capricious animal in the motorsports kingdom.

You win those things mostly by staying out of trouble and guessing right at the end, which is to say hooking up with the right drafting partner/line. And if there is some skill involved in that, it’s mostly undiluted luck, because no one really has a clue what’s going to happen when you get to those last few chaotic laps.

Guess right, and you’re Jimmie Johnson, who was mostly nowhere last year until the last 16 laps, when he hooked up with the right partners and moved to the lead, then held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin on the final restart. Guess wrong, and you’re Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick, who were second and third before the same restart but chose the wrong line and wound up seventh and eighth.

That’s Daytona. And it’s why you’ve got less sense than a lobotomized squirrel if you think you can pick the winner.

Sure, there have been plenty of Johnsons and Jeff Gordons and Matt Kenseths win Daytona, not to mention the odd Dale Jarrett or Ryan Newman. But it took Dale Earnhardt 20 years to win it – exactly 19 years more than it took Trevor Bayne, a barely known 21-year-old whose first, and still only, Cup win was Daytona in 2011.

Bayne isn’t alone. Michael Waltrip won Daytona twice, exactly half his win total in 29 seasons on the Cup circuit. Ward Burton won only five races in 13 seasons, but one of them was Daytona in 2002. He went on to finish 25th in the points that year.

And then there’s Derrike Cope, who won in 1990 only because Earnhardt cut a tire in the late going. It was one of just two career wins for Cope in 25 seasons – and after 1990, he amassed no wins and only four top fives across the next 17 years.

In other words: Stuff happens at Daytona, where the winner has come from the front row only twice in the last 20 years, and from 32nd or worse three times since 2007.

Which is why, if you’re compelled to pick a winner, you might as well just throw the field in a hat and pick a name.

Oh, look. I got Kevin Harvick – who’s actually won Daytona once, in 2007, but who’s also driving his first race for Stewart/Haas. So who knows what you’ll get.

As if anyone knows, anyway.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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