DAVIDSON – If NASCAR’s brass has a wish list, consider several of its top items checked off one race into the Sprint Cup season.
The sport’s most popular driver – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – won its biggest race, the Daytona 500, on Feb. 23. One of its heir apparents to NASCAR stardom, Austin Dillon, in the No. 3 Chevy’s return to Sprint Cup, won the pole for the race.
Earnhardt, to his credit, admitted after the race that he drove the race of his life.
He won what was one of the most competitive Daytona 500s in NASCAR history. The race’s 56th running featured 42 lead changes, several huge crashes and a dash to the finish that featured Earnhardt and Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, as well as Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle in the mix.
It was an all-star cast fit for the Sprint All-Star Race. But that’s in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Hamlin was just a few feet from history at Daytona International Speedway. He came the closest to stealing Earnhardt’s thunder on what was a frantic final lap.
It was only fitting, since Earnhardt had taken Hamlin off the sport’s pedestal. Hamlin had won the last three races he entered.
Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Huntersville-based JGR, captured the Ford EcoBoost 400 last November. He opened up 2014 by winning the Sprint Unlimited and the second Budweiser Duel qualifying race.
Only Earnhardt kept Hamlin from becoming the first driver ever to sweep all three races in Daytona Speedweeks.
You didn’t have to be a fan of Earnhardt, Hamlin, Dillon or Danica Patrick – she led two laps but finished 40th – to appreciate the boost NASCAR received from its most important race weekend.
Ratings didn’t reflect it, however. Thank a six-hour, 22-minute rain delay for the drop in average audience members from 16.7 million viewers last year to 9.3 million this year.
One person who had a great view of the finish didn’t even have to spend five minutes out of a racecar before the brevity of the moment – mainly Earnhardt’s first win in 55 races – came to the surface.
“The world is right, right now,” Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, told FOX. “That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one."
Still, Gordon had to play second fiddle – really, fourth, since that’s where he finished – at Daytona.
Earnhardt, Hamlin and Keselowski were the key players in a primetime show that went down as an instant classic. The 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 Daytona 500s also finished after the sun went down, mostly due to rain delays.
But there’s something about night racing at Daytona that just makes sense. Maybe NASCAR should look into ending all of its Daytona 500s at night.
Mother Nature seems to enjoy it. So do I.