Friday, April 18, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
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NASCAR’s task is duplicating Daytona 500 thriller

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) defeats Denny Hamlin (11) to the finish line to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the race finally resumed — some six hours after the Daytona 500 was brought to a water-logged halt — fans that made it to the finish were treated to one of the most intense races in memory.

As NASCAR heads West for a two-race swing through Phoenix and Las Vegas, the challenge is to somehow duplicate all that energy from the Daytona 500. There are 36 events left this year, and NASCAR would have very few problems if they are half as exciting as the 500.

“It was electric, man,” winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t know what the hell was going on or why it was like that. I wish I knew, because that’s what NASCAR wants to bottle and sell.”

NASCAR spent much of last year working on a new rules package to improve the on-track action at 1.5-mile tracks, and the first test won’t come until March 9 at Las Vegas. First up is this Sunday’s race at Phoenix, a one-mile, low-banked tri-oval in the desert that will give teams a far better indicator than Daytona of how prepared they are for the season.

But there will be new eyes watching, partly because of Earnhardt’s victory and partly because of the sheer competitiveness of Daytona, and they’ll be expecting a similar show.

“I know everybody thinks it’s the greatest race they ever saw because Dale Jr. won it,” Earnhardt said. “Taking that out of the equation, I think it really was an exciting race and one of the most exciting Daytona 500s I’ve ever been in and one of the most intense races I’ve ever been in.

“It felt so different than any other race I’d ever been in. The intensity level was at a max. Races usually have a lull in the middle, don’t get going ’til the end when it’s time to put money on the line, people start picking up the intensity. We sustained it from the time we started, restarted, all the way to the end. I couldn’t believe it.”

The race had 42 lead changes, and 37 of them came after the rain delay. Drivers ran three-wide when the situation called for single-file or maybe side-by-side racing. They seemed to treat every lap as if it was the last.

There’s no one reason to credit for the aggression, but a likely contributor was that no one was sure if it would rain again. Should the sky suddenly open up, the race would have ended and the winner would have been the leader on that lap.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France famously declared last September that he expected drivers to give 100 percent on every lap, and the Daytona 500 was evidence that everyone in the field is capable of meeting that demand.

“I think everyone raced a hard, 500-mile race. I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting,” said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. “I couldn’t be more pleased as both a participant and naturally a fan of the sport with how the 500 went from a competitive standpoint.”

Now it’s up to the drivers to deliver a similar product going forward.

___

TWEETING FOOL: So reluctant to get involved in social media, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is suddenly a tweeting fool.

He joked with Michael Waltrip that he’d consider joining Twitter if he won the Daytona 500, and followed through with that promise with his first tweet early Monday.

Earnhardt has since proven to be an expert at selfies, used photos of his whirlwind winner’s media tour to show his humor, and has already hosted his first Twitter chat. His account was established by JR Motorsports in 2008 just in case he ever wanted to use Twitter. It gradually added followers, even though the account was dormant, and a Twitter official said this week Earnhardt had 215,106 the day before the Daytona 500.

That number had gone up to 216,320 by midnight on Sunday, and had swelled to 416,219 a mere 24 hours later.

Now two days after that tweet, Earnhardt has passed the half-million mark and is rapidly closing in on six-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s mark 548,000 followers. Next up on the list? Danica Patrick, who last weekend became the first driver in NASCAR or IndyCar to reach 1 million followers.

“I just felt like I was going to join Twitter sooner or later and just didn’t know when,” Earnhardt said. “It’s becoming such a big part of our lives and such big part of exposure to our partners. I’m having fun with it. I thought it would be after an event like winning the championship or the Daytona 500 — it felt natural (Sunday night) to go ahead and kick it off. We had 200,000 followers without one tweet. I figured they’d been waiting around for something.”

___

DEJECTED DENNY: Denny Hamlin could spend a lot of time second-guessing what he could have done differently in the closing laps of the Daytona 500.

He won two races during Speedweeks and was going for the trifecta with a victory in the “Great American Race.” But when he climbed back into his car after the lengthy rain delay, his radio communication was intermittent at best. He told his spotter he could only hear him on the backstretch, and there were times he could hear nothing at all.

Since drivers rely on spotters to navigate traffic, Hamlin was hamstrung, particularly in the final two-lap sprint to the finish when he made his charge through the field. He wound up second but had trouble finding much joy in the result.

“Any other year I probably would have been jumping up and down,” he said. “Me not being able to drive to my ability because I was being conservative, trying to spot for myself, that’s not a way to race.”

But Hamlin, who missed four full races and most of a fifth with a fractured vertebra last season, can’t dwell on Daytona. After a strong start to 2014 to help him forget about the worst season of his career, he moves now to Phoenix to see if the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team really has any momentum.

“Phoenix will be a true gauge to see where our program is at,” he said. “Daytona gives us a lift after running well, but it’s up to us to prove that our cars have the speed and handling needed to excel at a shorter track like Phoenix and as we get into the bulk of tracks on the schedule.”

___

The youngest driver in ARCA Series history has signed a driver development contract with Roulo Brothers Racing, an affiliate of Roush Fenway Racing.

Kyle Benjamin became the youngest winner in ARCA history last year at 15 years old with his victory at Madison (Wis.) International Speedway. He became the youngest pole winner in series history at Toledo Speedway.

“We believe that Kyle Benjamin is one of the top young drivers in this sport, and that he has a tremendous future ahead of him,” said team owner Gary Roulo. “We are happy to be a part of that.”

Benjamin, who is now 16, joins another young driver in the Roulo development program: Kyle Weatherman, another 16-year-old, scored two runner-up finishes last year in ARCA at Iowa Speedway and Salem.

“It’s my dream to compete in and win races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and this is the first step,” said Benjamin. “It’s going to be a lot of fun driving for Gary and the Roulo Brothers Racing team, who have an amazing track record with their young drivers.”

Roulo Brothers Racing most recently produced 2012 ARCA champion Chris Buescher, who will compete for NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie of the year this season for RFR.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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