By Joe Dunn
It seemed for a while that Sunday’s Daytona 500 would never end after two red flags to fix a pothole in turn two, but in the end it was well worth the wait. After a week that was dominated by Danica Patrick’s first NASCAR race on Saturday in the NNS Drive4COPD 250, Sunday was the day for the attention to move to the Cup regulars. At the end of the day, it was Jamie McMurray who crossed the finish line first and became the new Daytona 500 Champion for 2010.
The Daytona 500 is the biggest and most prestigious race of the year for America’s most popular auto racing series, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. During the off season NASCAR said they were going to respond to the complaints and suggestions of not only the teams and drivers, but also the fans. To that end, in January the announcements began, first with word that the ‘wing’ would be replaced mid season by a spoiler. Following that was word of relaxing the ‘Bump Draft’ rules, and consideration of doing away with the “Yellow line’ rule at the restrictor plate tracks. After much protest by drivers, the ‘yellow line’ stays, but the ‘Bump draft’ goes, and later came the announcement of the multiple chances at a Green-White-Checker finish. Those two changes made for a very good and exciting race Sunday.
Despite the delays, this was one of the most exciting races in recent years at Daytona, and earned the distinction of setting a new record with 21 different leaders. The expected leaders such as Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kyle Bush and Clint Bowyer and the unexpected leaders of Travis Kvapil, Boris Said, Scott Speed and A J Almendinger, who led a race high 32 laps. One big surprise was Reigning Series Champion Jimmie Johnson, who failed to lead a single lap, and would finish a disappointing 35th.
Sunday’s race kept the fans on the edge of their seats as they were left constantly wondering who was going to lead next and who was really going to be the dominant car. The most dominant of course was Kevin Harvick who lead a high of 41 laps and spent 202 of the 208 laps in the top 15. His teammate Clint Bowyer was a constant threat throughout the day as were Greg Biffle, Juan Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr, who spent the better part of the day outside the lead draft was a real crowd pleaser as he rallied back in the final two laps to challenge McMurray for the win, settling for a 2nd place finish. That position would make him the top finishing Hendrick car, a distinction he failed to met during the entire 2009 season.
After a long day, the excitement of the last two laps brought the fans to their feet as Jamie McMurray, in his first race with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing came away the big winner. What an accomplishment for the kid from Missouri who at the end of last season found himself without a ride, due to the NASCAR team limit rule that forced Roush Fenway Racing to eliminate one of it’s teams. Getting ready for the new season without a ride, he was fortunate to land the No. 1 Chevrolet ride for EGR, a feat some may have been very surprised by. It was the Chip Ganassi organization that McMurray had left in 2006 to replace Kurt Bush at Roush Racing. Unlike some drivers who change teams looking for better deals or equipment, Jamie left Ganassi on fairly good terms, which made the transition easy. Jamie talked, after the race, about his hopes for a fresh start in the No. 1 Bass Pro Shop Chevrolet, and that he prayed Sunday morning for a top 10 finish. In his words, a win was never a serious thought, his prayers were answered for sure.
In Victory Lane, Ganassi congratulated McMurray on his second first win for the team. Back in 2002, Jamie was running the NNS when Sterling Marlin was injured. Ganassi hired McMurray to drive the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge, and in only his second start he won the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. This was also the first Daytona 500 win for Ganassi, so Jamie’s future with EGR looks pretty secure now.
For Junior fans, it was like the awakening of the sleeping giant, finally Dale Earnhardt Jr was to finish up front and come away from Daytona second in the 2010 points. After finishing the 2009 season twenty fifth in the points, while his fellow Hendrick teammates finished 1, 2 and 3, it gave a lot of happy fans confidence to see him 2nds, while his teammates leave Daytona 12, 26 and 35. It’s early, and after only one race, the points mean little, but for a team that struggled all last year and was desperate for a good start this year, Sunday was a great accomplishment, that give not only Junior and his team, but also his fans, hopes that the big turn around has finally arrived.