Tag Archives: Jimmie Johnson

No Shine Off Chase Elliott’s Rookie Season

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Chase Elliott leads the field past us at Talladega

Chase Elliott isn’t going to win the championship this year, and that’s a bummer. But the mere fact that there’s such a level of disappointment over having to accept that speaks to the massive increase in expectations.

That veteran championship contenders, Denny Hamlin in particular, made it a point not to aide the 20 year old rookie at Talladega because they legitimately worried about him winning the whole thing if he advanced speaks to the expectations even his competition has for him.
Chase Elliott didn’t fail to win the title this year because he’s not good enough, or because he’s in over his head, or because he’s still a couple of years away from being a contender. No, Chase Elliott isn’t continuing his championship fight simply due to rotten racing luck.

In reality, the same can be said of Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski as well. The second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup was not kind to three of arguably the top five contenders for the championship. Outside of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, the trio of Elliott, Truex and Keselowski were the class of the field over the duration of the chase as it pertained to raw speed. An argument could be made that in terms of speed and running up front consistently nobody was better than Chase Elliott through the first six races of the chase.

But running up front alone isn’t enough. Victimized at Charlotte by Martin Truex causing a massive crash on a day Elliott had established himself as one of the two fastest cars to derail his quest for a championship, his hopes went on life support when at Kansas a week later rotten racing luck bit after Elliott had established himself again as arguably the best car there.

Yet, in a do or die must win situation there he was at Talladega, up front and establishing himself yet again as one of the two best cars there. He went toe to toe with Keselowski, passing the dominate Ford on multiple occasions and proving to be his biggest threat.


But the racing gods decided it wasn’t to be for either contender. Keselowski detonated an engine and Elliott lost track position that without the required help needed at Talladega he just couldn’t get back.

But no one can say it was for a lack of trying. The rookie tried everything he could, making moves that left me closing my eyes from my spot in the grandstands from worry it was going to turn ugly. But there he was fighting every step of the way, and going down swinging.

Another testament to the respect he’s earned in the garage was the commitment shown to him by six time champion and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Already locked into the next round, Johnson pledged to commit to doing everything he could to help Elliott advance.

And boy did he ever. There were times you could almost see Johnson say, “I can’t believe we’re doing this here, but OK, I’m coming”, as he followed Elliott everywhere he could. Teammates or not, that’s a level of commitment reserved for people who your utmost respect. And for a 20 year old rookie to have such respect from one of the greatest drivers of all-time says something.

While the championship is off the table, plenty remains to be accomplished in 2016 over the final four races.

For starters, there’s the matter of getting that first win that they’ve been banging on the door of like a police officer.  There isn’t a person in the garage area that would be surprised if Elliott won not just one, but even perhaps two, of the final four races. Beyond that, they can still finish in the top ten in points.

The simple fact of the matter is that if Elliott’s future were any brighter we’d be advised to not stare directly into it.

When the 2017 season starts back up next February Elliott will be on the list of pre-season favorites to win the championship at the highest level of his sport. Not many 21 year olds (he’ll turn 21 at the end of November) can say that’s ever happened to them, in any sport.

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Summer Slumps Don’t Matter to Jimmie Johnson

*edited to include the 2016 and 2017 season as of 7/10*

Much has been made of the demise of Hendrick Motorsports and the slump they’re enduring and how the sky is falling over at NASCAR’s preeminent shop. Yawn. We’ve heard this before. In fact, for the most dominant team in NASCAR’s modern era, the sky falls practically every summer. And just like clockwork as the leaves change, amazingly so does Johnson’s fortune as the summer winds to a close.

When something happens often enough, it’s no longer due to chance, or luck. You just chalk it up to the way things are. And Jimmie Johnson struggling through the summer, seemingly making him seem vulnerable, only to recover once the playoffs start is a fall tradition that’s about as entrenched as Thanksgiving Day football at this point.

So let’s slow down wondering what’s wrong with Hendrick Motorsports. Talk to me after the chase if Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson don’t have their Lowe’s Chevy up front consistently over the final ten races of the season competing for wins and the title.

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Slow summer for Jimmie Johnson? Yawn. We’ve seen what this becomes.

After all, we’ve seen this before. Just look

2004

Summer- From Indianapolis up until the final race of the regular season finished 36th or worse in 4 of six races. Three weeks in a row suffered a blown engine while averaging a 28.2 finish over the final six races of the regular season.

Chase- Slump continued to begin the chase by opening with an 11th and 10th, followed by two DNFs at Talladega and Kansas to seemingly end championship hopes. Proceeded to win four of the next five races and then finished 2nd at Homestead to narrowly miss out on winning the championship.

2005

Summer- After the series 14th race at Pocono Johnson held a 123 point lead over Greg Biffle in the standings. Johnson would go on to finish out of the top ten in eight of the next dozen races with an average finish of 19.4 and fell 316 points behind Tony Stewart.

Chase- Johnson won twice in the chase and entered Homestead just 52 points behind Tony Stewart in the race for the championship before an accident relegated him to a 40th place finish.

2006

Summer- Over the final five races of the regular season Johnson had an average finish of 14.8 with only one top ten finish.

Chase- After being wrecked by teammate Brian Vickers on the last lap while racing for the win at Talladega, Johnson found himself 8th in points after four races in the chase and 202 points out of the lead. Over the next five races his average finish was 1.8, with four runner-ups and a win en route to his first championship.

2007

Summer- From Dover during the first weekend of June thru the Brickyard 400 at the end of July, Johnson finished 15th or worse in six of the next eight races. Three of those finishes were 37th or worse and he found himself 9th in points, 607 in arrears of teammate Jeff Gordon after averaging a 23rd place finish during that stretch.

Chase- Johnson averaged a steady 7.8 average finish over the first five chase races. He then proceeded to win four races in a row to catapult him to his second straight title.

2008

Summer- For once, there was no summer slump to speak of. Struggles during May kept Johnson from commanding the standings, but he ended the regular season 3rd in points.

Chase- Eight finishes in the top 10, and no finishes worse than 15th coupled nicely with three victories as Johnson matched Cale Yarborough with his third straight championship.

2009

Summer- After twenty races and his victory at Indianapolis, Johnson sat second in points. However, over the final six races of the regular season, Johnson would only finish in the top ten once, managing only to have an average finish of 18.8.

Chase- Four wins and seven top five finishes were more than enough for Johnson to wrap up title number four.

2010

Summer- Back to back wins at Sonoma and Loudon had Johnson second in points, 105 behind Kevin Harvick after 17 races. His average finish over the next seven races though was a staggering 23.3 with just one top ten finish and five finishes out of the top twenty.

Chase- After a 25th place finish in the first race of the chase, Johnson used nine straight finishes inside the top ten to wrap up his fifth consecutive championship.

2011

Summer- There was no real slump for the 48 team over the summer of 2011, and many expected them to be a favorite for the title once the chase began.

Chase- An absolute disaster for Johnson, they finished out of the top ten in seven of the ten races and finished a then career worst 6th in points.

2012

Summer- There was a mini slump from Daytona thru Richmond as Johnson had five finishes out of the top ten over the final nine events of the regular season.

Chase- Five top five finishes among the first eight events of the chase had Johnson in the points lead with two laps to go, but an uncharacteristic collapse over the final two races saw finishes of 32nd and 36th derail their championship hopes.

2013

Summer- Over the final four races leading into the chase, Johnson had an average finish of 36th, and average finish of 27.5 over the final half dozen races in the regular season.

Chase- For the second time in his career, Johnson used nine top tens in the chase to walk away with the championship at the end of the year.

2014

Summer- After 17 races Johnson sat second in points, right on the heels of Jeff Gordon. But after averaging a 33rd place over their next five races, including three finishes of 39th or worse, Johnson had fallen to 7th in points.

Chase- Johnson steadily advanced out of the first round of NASCAR’s reformulated chase, but he failed to finish higher than 17th in any of the races in round two and was eliminated.

2015

Summer- After the season’s official halfway point Johnson found himself second in points. But from there to the conclusion of the regular season eight races later, Johnson only averaged a 14.4 average finish.

Chase- This time they couldn’t right the ship at all in the chase, as mechanical failure at Dover doomed them to first round elimination.

2016

Summer- Jimmie Johnson sat third in points after the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600, but when the calendar flipped to June, like clockwork the 48 suddenly started tumbling in the standings. Over the next 14 races Johnson had an average finish of 19.4, with only one top 5. The 48 team led only three races for a total of 42 laps, and 41 of those 42 came in the two Michigan races. In fact, when the circuit left Darlington after Labor Day, Johnson had fallen from 3rd in points to 11th between the summer bookend weekends.

Chase- Due to his two wins, Johnson was still able to begin the playoffs tied for 4th, a mere 6 points behind leader Brad Keselowski as the first round began. Johnson used an average finish of 9th in the first round to advance and then subsequently won the opening race of each of the following two rounds to secure his spot in the finale at Homestead where, of course, he won again, and won his record tying 7th championship.

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Don’t let the recent pitfalls and bad luck confuse you, Jimmie Johnson is still a title contender

2017?

So, yes, he’s struggled again this summer. His average finish over the last 8 races is a very pedestrian 19.1, and that includes winning a race in that stretch. While he’s won 3 of the first 18 races this year, he hasn’t finished better than 8th in any of the others, posting an average finish of 18.7.

But if you wanna count this time out of the championship hunt, do so at your own risk. I didn’t last August, and it paid off quite nice at the end of the year.

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No Ordinary Rookie

 

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Past meets future as Jeff Gordon passes the torch to a new generation, and a new legacy for the 24.

Coming into a big time sport as a rookie with enormous hype is one of the tougher challenges in sports. The pressure, the change in lifestyle, the new found fame, it’s no wonder so many rookies have crumbled under such expectations, some to the point of no recovery.

But imagine the challenge when not only you are hyped up to be the next great thing, BUT you are also the immediate successor to a legend. And by legend, I mean legend. I’m not talking about trying to replace an all-star like Jason Heyward in your lineup, or Joe Johnson on your basketball team. I’m talking about trying to replace Babe Ruth or Kobe Bryant.

Jeff Gordon is in the argument for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Not just of his era, but of any era, and his three year stretch from 1996 thru 1998 is still one of the most dominant periods in modern American sports, but that’s another story for another day. Being tabbed to replace Jeff Gordon, with Gordon going out while making NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and competing for a fifth championship, has few valid comparisons in sports history.

While similar to replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, it’s still different. In football you still have 52 other guys on the roster. You still have the same team, with the same logo, and many of the same players. You still have the same history of an organization that existed before that particular legend became a part of it. At the end of the day, you’re still one of many people to play quarterback for the 49ers or for the Colts.

What Chase is doing replacing Jeff Gordon is almost unparalleled. The only person to ever win a Sprint Cup race in a car numbered 24 is, for the time being anyway, Jeff Gordon. The commercial isn’t hyperbole or inaccurate in anyway, 24 is more than a number. It is a legacy all on it’s own, and it’s a legacy created by one man.

But within the past five to seven years it began to dawn on us all that at some point, that one man would no longer continue to drive competitively at this level. So what then? Would Rick Hendrick, the owner who took a chance on the fast but crash happy 20-year-old kid back in the early 90s retire the number? Or would he look for a successor? And would it be an established veteran or would he try to repeat history with another young hotshot?

In February of 2011 the plan began to take shape when Rick Hendrick signed a 15-year-old high school freshman from Georgia to a multi-year driver agreement.

The driver? Chase Elliott. You know, son of another NASCAR legend, Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott.

By 2013 Elliott was winning races in the truck series, and by 2014 was running full-time in the Xfinity Series, where as an 18-year-old rookie he not only won three races, he also took home Most Popular Driver, Rookie of the Year, and the series championship.

By January of 2015, with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 would be his last season of competitive racing, Elliott was tabbed with the most pressure packed responsibility since Kevin Harvick slid into the seat of Richard Childress’ GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in February of 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2016 with Elliott coming off a 2015 season in which he followed up his championship by finishing second in points and winning another race. For the first time since November of 1992, a premier series NASCAR event was set to take place without Jeff Gordon in it.

However, the 24 car would be there. But with a new look, though the number kept it’s same font and style, new sponsors, and more importantly, a new driver.

All eyes were on the 20-year-old who promptly went out and won the pole for the biggest race of the year. Typically, the fastest qualifier is awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Only Elliott isn’t of legal drinking age and ineligible for such an aware, or to carry such a decal on his racecar.

So here we are, hot shot 20-year-old kid considered the next big thing, replacing one of the greatest to ever participate in the sport and taking over a car number that’s a legacy and as iconic as almost any number in sports, on the pole for the biggest race of the year, and, oh yeah, in addition to the huge shoes of Jeff Gordon to fill, there’s the small matter of being Bill Elliott’s son.

Nobody can sustain these kind of expectations and possibly live up to the hype, right? Surely the kid is going to crumble. Maybe not beyond repair, but we should be pumping the brakes a bit on his rookie season, no? Give him a couple of years to really get his feet wet and settle into his role, right?

No, not this rookie. Not this rookie who, well, really doesn’t seem like a rookie.

We know what happened at Daytona, the 500 turned into a disaster early. Immediately the criticism began, and it looked like maybe the moment was too big right now. It was too much pressure. Maybe Rick Hendrick had brought him along too soon.

Or maybe any such notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Elliott rebounded from that 37th place finish with a strong top ten run at his home track of Atlanta the next week, only to have a very questionable pit strategy decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson cost him multiple positions late in the race at Las Vegas and leave him mired back in the pack after running up in the top ten all race long. Eventually Elliott would get collected in a wreck not of his own making and finish 38th.

In an interview following the Las Vegas wreck Elliott seemed extremely frustrated, and placed a lot of the blame, needlessly I might add, on himself. He knew what was happening. He had wrecked in two of the first three races, and the naysayers were going to get louder.

Well that’s as loud as they’ve gotten. Since the wreck at Vegas Elliott has done nothing but silence even the most skeptical of critics. Over the last six races Elliott has an average finish of 8.5 and has moved himself solidly into playoff position. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. He has established himself as a viable threat to win races.

Over the last four races Elliott has finishes of 6th, 20th, 5th, and 4th. In three of those four races he found himself in second position at some point in the race’s final 15%, and without late cautions at California, Texas and Bristol, could very well be looking at a streak of three runner-up finishes in his last four races, though many would argue without a caution at Texas, he may very well have won.

But to truly appreciate what Elliott has done so far this year, you have to put it into perspective by comparing it to the debuts of some other stars in recent, or not so recent, memory.

The chart below illustrates how some of NASCAR’s top drivers and strongest rookie campaigns compare to Elliott’s after the first eight events of their first full-time season. With rookies being rookies and apt to putting cars into fences, the chart also looks at their average finish by taking away the two worst performances in the season’s first eight races, to give a better indicator of how they finished when they, well, actually finished.

Age Top 5 Top 10 Avg St Avg Fin Best 6 Avg Points
Chase Elliott 20 2 5 12 15.8 8.5 12
Jeff Gordon 21 2 4 10.7 16.5 10.7 12
Kyle Busch 20 1 2 24.3 21.4 15.7 25
Jimmie Johnson 26 1 5 14.7 13.3 7.2 7
Tony Stewart 28 0 2 9.9 16.8 11.7 10
Dale Earnhardt Sr 28 2 3 9.1 11.8 8.3 8
Bill Elliott 27 4 5 11 11.5 6.8 5
Dale Earnhardt Jr 25 1 2 8.5 22 16.3 19
Ryan Newman 24 2 4 13.4 19.8 12.8 16
Davey Allison 26 1 2 7.4 18.8 18.8 21
Matt Kenseth 28 0 2 17.1 21.8 15.7 21
Joey Logano 19 0 0 25.4 29.1 25.3 33
Kyle Larson 21 2 4 16.4 16.1 10.7 14
Jeff Gordon 2015 1 5 11.7 16.3 9.3 9

 

*note, Davey Allison didn’t attempt races six through eight, but came back and won race number nine at Talladega, and won again at Dover, giving him two wins in his first eight starts of his rookie, but not within the first eight races of the season*

Elliott compares favorably to the majority on this list. In fact, factoring age, depending on which aspect you value more heavily, an argument could be made that his start to his career has been as impressive, if not more, than anyone on this list.

The only drivers on this list to have five top ten finishes among the first eight races are Jimmie Johnson and then the father and son duo of Bill and Chase and Elliott. Bill Elliott was the only one to finish in the top five on more than two occasions, and the only one sitting in the top five in points (he would finish 3rd and capture his first career win in the season finale at Riverside) at this juncture of the season. However, it should also be noted that the elder Elliott had run 21 races the year before (not a full season) and despite having never run 75% of the schedule, had started nearly 100 races before the 1983 season began, so he wasn’t exactly a rookie.

While the Elliotts are the only ones on the list with five top tens and more than one top five finish, the Earnhardts are the only ones who won a race this early in the going of their rookie season. There is a reason NASCAR is known as such a family sport, after all.

Elliott’s average finish of 15.8 is topped by the asterisked elder Elliott, and then only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. I guess that’s not bad company. I mean, the two non Elliotts only combined to win nearly 150 races and 13 championships between them.

And just for good measure, I took the time to see how Elliott is doing through eight races this year as compared to that guy he took over for, that Gordon fella.

I’d say he’s doing a mighty fine job stepping into those shoes in the 24 car. And he’s only trending upwards.

I said weeks ago I thought Richmond would be Elliott’s first win. His career average finish in the Xfinity Series there is 2.5, having finished second on two occasions, won once, and fifth in his other appearance. With the trend of how the team has been running lately, that prediction may very well come true.

But even if it doesn’t, Elliott has proven Hendrick knew what he was doing, and that the 24 would be in good hands and Elliott is not only capable of simply carrying the number into the future, but he may very well be able to give that number a new legacy for an entirely new generation of fans.

 

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Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 21-25

25. 2003 Daytona 500

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

The 2003 Daytona 500 may go down as one of the strangest Daytona 500s ever. This was during the period of DEI dominance at the restrictor plates, and the 2003 Daytona 500 was no exception. Just the previous Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip had started, and finished, first and second in their Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier. And on an overcast Sunday at the beach, it appeared a similar story was being written.

Earnhardt however would suffer from electrical problems and would fall multiple laps in arrears, effectively taking him out of contention for his first Daytona 500 victory. Waltrip however was still around, and it appeared his stiffest competition would be from either Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson. While Earnhardt may have no longer been in contention for the victory himself, he still was in position to play a huge role in deciding just who would go to victory lane.

A caution flew on lap 96, and following the pit stops by the leaders, Jimmie Johnson emerged as the leader for the first time. Waltrip (64) and Earnhardt (22) had led 86 of the first 95 laps of the event and it would appear to only be a matter of time before Waltrip would make his way back to the front. Earnhardt was at this point still battling to make up the multiple laps he’d lost while suffering through his ailments earlier in the day. Time, however, was not on anyone’s side this day. Well, perhaps it was on one man’s side.

The race restarted and only three green flag laps were run, as another caution flew, this one for debris. Johnson still maintained the lead, but lining up to his inside on the restart would be the car of Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was two laps down. This was before the days of the double file restart with only lead-lap cars, and wave arounds, and lucky dogs. This was when the lead lap cars restarted on the outside, and the cars one or more laps in arrears restarted on the bottom. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. It made all the difference in the world on this day.

Immediately after the green dropped on lap 106 Waltrip dropped from his spot on Johnson’s bumper to the bottom line behind teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt raced past Johnson to bring himself back to just one lap down, but more importantly, he pulled Waltrip with him. Everyone knew that the two DEI cars hooked up together were next to unbeatable. So the circumstances surrounding what turned out to be the final restart did not at all make Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus very happy.

While the leaders were coming off of turn four, defending Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton crashed, bringing out the race’s third caution in the last twelve laps. It would be the final caution. The skies completely opened up while the field was pacing around the track, and it did not take long for NASCAR to call the race after just 109 laps, or 272.5 miles.

The irony in it all was that once again, Waltrip was denied a true victory lane celebration of a Daytona 500 victory. Amazing, for a man who won two Daytona 500s (though many hesitate to say that, considering this one wasn’t even the distance of the Nationwide race that precedes it on Saturday), he’s yet to truly experience victory lane in The Great American Race.

Kurt Busch would wind up second, and it would not be the last time he would be the bridesmaid, while Johnson took third. Earnhardt would never get the chance to make up his other lost lap, but of course, if you’ve been reading you know, he would take the checkered flag the very next February.

The race itself saw just 11 lead changes during its 109 laps, and only Waltrips pass of Johnson on the restart took place under green. Coupled with the weather, and the shortened distance, there really wasn’t much to enjoy about this Daytona 500. Ryan Newman’s accident, and the subplots of Waltrip winning another Daytona 500 that seemed to be marred and overshadowed by a bigger story are the only things that made this race remotely memorable.

24. 1985 Daytona 500

A portrait of dominance

A portrait of dominance

When it comes down to it, there may not have been a less competitive Daytona 500 in the past 30 years than the 1985 edition. And it’s for that reason, actually, that it doesn’t rank as the least enjoyable of the past thirty years.

The 1985 Daytona 500 should in fact be appreciated for what it was. And what it was was a domination of unheard of proportions, and of proportions that will never be seen again at the famed 2.5 mile track. What Bill Elliott managed to do to the field at Daytona in the February of 1985 bordered on criminal.

Elliott had already won the pole with a track record lap that bettered 205 mph, and was over a full mph faster than outside pole sitter Cale Yarborough. On Thursday, Elliott went out and proceeded to absolutely crush what fleeting hope anyone had of catching the red Ford by leading all 50 laps of his Twin 125 Qualifier…..and lapping all but five cars. That’s right, in a 50 lap sprint at Daytona, Elliott left a mere five cars on the lead lap and won by 37 seconds. Yes, 37 seconds. If Elliott didn’t break, nobody had a chance on Sunday.

And as it would happen, Elliott did not break. But just about everybody else did in their attempts, futile at that, to try and keep up the pace. By days end, only 18 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, and only Lake Speed finished on the same lap as Elliott. The list of names who succumbed to Elliott’s prowess was long and distinguished. Nobody had anything for the youngster from Georgia, and anyone who tried to keep the pace found themselves in the garage.

At one point in the race Elliott built up a 44 second lead. Again, you’re reading this right, a 44 second lead. Apparently NASCAR didn’t like the way Elliott was stinking up their show however and had him come to pit road to repair a hole over the headlight cover. Elliott made his stop, lost the lead as the crew made the repairs, rejoined the fray and he was back in the lead again in 10 laps.

The 1985 Daytona 500 was not particularly enjoyable to watch, and it certainly was not competitive as Elliott led for 136 laps. However, what it was, was something we won’t ever witness again. What it was was a case of man and machine completely dominating every other combination of man and machine to levels that were just unfathomable. People talk about how dominant the Morgan-McClure car was at the plate tracks for a stretch in the mid 90s, or the DEI dominance of the early 2000s, or even of Jimmie Johnson’s success at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. None of those compare to how dominant Bill Elliott was at Daytona during Speed Weeks in 1985. Never since has one man been such a heavy favorite entering a NASCAR race, and for good reason. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen.

23. 2012 Daytona 500

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

The most recent edition of the Daytona 500 is remembered much more for things that happened while the green flag was NOT out, than what took place at speed on the racetrack.

For starters, for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday. The race had been shortened in the past, and it had been delayed. But it had never been postponed. As they say, there’s a first time for everything. Not that FOX, or NASCAR really seemed to mind. With inclement weather still lingering around on Monday, NASCAR was able to get a prime time Monday night showcase slot for it’s premier event, which so happened to also be the debut of one, Danica Patrick.

The race itself, to long-time NASCAR fans, wasn’t exactly a lot to write home about. The two Jack Roush cars of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were clearly the class of the field, with seemingly the only driver with any possibility of besting the two blue ovals being Denny Hamlin. A first lap crash had already taken out Jimmie Johnson, as well as Danica Patrick. Hamlin seemed early on to be the class of the field, but anyone who’d seen the Roush cars all week long knew how stout they were. And in the second half of the race the two flexed their muscle.

The end was fairly anti-climatic. Kenseth led the final 38 laps, an unheard of number in today’s day and age of plate racing, and was never seriously challenged at the end. Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to get around Kenseth’s teammate Greg Biffle for 2nd, but Earnhardt had no chance of passing Kenseth without any drafting help, and obviously, Biffle wasn’t going to be helping a Chevrolet beat his teammate.

However, it almost came to be that Kenseth never got to lead those last 38 laps. And had that stayed true, this Daytona 500 would have gone down as one of the most memorable ever.

NASCAR has a way of having big moments happen when the national television spotlight is brightest. In 1979 when they televised the race flag to flag live for the first time, there was the fight. In 2001, when FOX televised its first race, there was Dale Earnhardt’s death. And, then in 2012 when NASCAR got its first Monday Night race, there was Juan Pablo Montoya and the jet-dryer. Darrell Waltrip likes to say in the booth, “have you ever?” The answer in this case, from anyone who saw this, was, “No”.

Montoya’s escapade into the jet dryer left jet fuel spilling all over the race track in turn three, and the possibility of damage to the track’s surface made it very possible the race would not be restarted. Had that happened, Dave Blaney would be your defending Daytona 500 champion.

Of course, after a lengthy clean-up, and lots of Tide, and Brad Keselowski tweeting pictures from inside his car, the race did re-start. So, as it stands, the Montoya/jet-dryer explosion makes this race memorable. But had it allowed Dave Blaney to be a Daytona 500 winner, it would have been one of the most memorable of all-time.

22. 2006 Daytona 500

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

It wasn’t that the 2006 Daytona 500 wasn’t competitive, there were 32 lead changes among 18 different drivers. It was just that it was…….well, what was it? And there in lies the problem. There is no identity to this edition of the Daytona 500, nothing memorable to stand out. Well, I guess you could count Tony Stewart body slamming Matt Kenseth into the grass down the backstretch, only days after Stewart himself claimed, “We’re going to kill somebody driving like this”. But aside from that?

Perhaps it’s more memorable for Ryan Newman, Dodge, and Chip Ganassi. It was on this night that they realized Casey Mears would opt to help someone from his home state win, and driving a rival team’s car, in a rival manufacturer, as opposed to helping a fellow Dodge. Newman made a move on race leader Jimmie Johnson on the back stretch of the final lap, expecting help from a fellow Dodge lined up behind him. Instead, the Dodge driver decided his allegiances to California were deeper than those to the manufacturer of his race cars, and he Mears stuck with Johnson, handing Johnson the win.

For Johnson it was particularly sweet, as early during Speed Weeks NASCAR had kindly, or maybe not so kindly, escorted Chad Knaus out of the race track, and told him he was not welcome back to the track for six weeks after they found some creative workings of his on the race car to be a little too blatant a smudging of the rules. Interesting enough, the man filling in on the top of the pit box for Knaus was none other than Darian Grubb, he off the 2012 Sprint Cup championship with Tony Stewart.

I feel like there should be more to say here, but, really, there just isn’t. The race was competitive, so it wasn’t boring, and there was drama at the conclusion. There was just something missing…….

21. 1986 Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

The 1986 Daytona 500, despite NASCAR’s efforts to slow down the Fords, particularly one built in a tiny shop in Dawsonville, Ga, seemed very similar to its predecessor. Bill Elliott was on the pole, qualifying at over 205 mph….again.

But Elliott’s ’86 Ford wasn’t as dominant as his 1985 model had been. Partly due to NASCAR rules aimed to slow him down, and partly due to the diligence and work of the other teams in the garage, particularly the Chevrolets owned by Richard Childress and upstart owner Rick Hendrick, the elite competition seemed on an even playing field with Elliott.

Setting the stage was the budding rivalry that Richard Childress and his driver Dale Earnhardt had already established with Rick Hendrick and Geoff Bodine. On track skirmishes were frequent between the two, and even after this Daytona 500, would remain so. So much so, the feud between Rowdy Burns and Cole Trickle, and the meeting with NASCAR at the hospital was modeled after the rivalry between these two Chevy drivers.

For Sunday, Bodine had qualified on the outside pole along side Elliott and finished 2nd in his Twin 125 Mile Qualifer…..second to Earnhardt.

The race saw 19 lead changes in the first 113 laps, as the Fords, particularly Elliott, were not able to run away and hide. Elliott was in contention of course, but the race changed dramatically on the 117th lap. Neil Bonnett, who had led 32 laps earlier in the race, had suffered mechanical problems and found himself 18 laps off the pace. Yet, for some reason, he was still up at the front of the pack mixing it up with the leaders. This proved to be fatal to the hopes of many contenders. Bonnett broke a wheel on lap 117, and by the time he had collected all he was going to eliminate, he’d ended the hopes of Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Joe Ruttman, Buddy Baker and Tommy Ellis among others. At this point, it was pretty much down to Earnhardt and Bodine.

Bodine would dominate the second half of the race, but many, Bodine included, will tell you it was only because Earnhardt let him. Bodine would later say that as the race wound down, that Earnhardt’s Wrangler Monte Carlo was the faster of the two Chevrolets, even though Bodine led over half of the event. Bodine held the lead late, but Earnhardt was in the cat bird seat, exactly where he wanted, and needed to be, to win the Daytona 500. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Aided by pitting one lap after Earnhardt came to pit road, and by superior gas mileage, Bodine was able to stretch his fuel to the end, while Earnhardt could not. Earnhardt, likely from frustration and anger at losing the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion (and it would not be the last) slid through his pit, and then when taking off from pit-road, tore something up in the motor, relegating him to a 14th place finish.

For Bodine and Hendrick, it was a sign that the used car salesman from Charlotte was serious about this stock car racing thing. It was the first big win for Hendrick, and as we all know, it would not be his last. For Bodine, this win would easily mark the highlight of his career. It also wouldn’t be the last time a Hendrick car won the Daytona 500 thanks to some impressive fuel mileage.

The budding rivalry between Bodine and Earnhardt had a few more coals added to the fire with this outcome. And for Earnhardt, little did he know how many more tries it would take to get a Daytona 500. It was already the second time he’d lost one in the closing laps, and as mentioned, it would not be the last.

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