I remember the day clearly; I was a young kid watching the biggest NASCAR race of the season, the Daytona 500. After viewers saw Tony Stewart in the orange number 20 go for a tumble, while 17 other cars were sent skidding down the backstretch, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his father, Dale Earnhardt were the hard-pressed favorites to win the Great American Race. Unfortunately, we all saw what happened on the last corner of the last lap of the race: the legendary Dale Earnhardt, my hero, was taken from us.
The news of the passing of this legend is still with me today. Ten years later, NASCAR has a much different look to it. The cars and tracks are safer, the points system has completely changed and there are many new faces in the garage area. This Speedweeks marked the 10-year anniversary of Dale’s death, which the media gurus wouldn’t let us forget, so much so that one man, Tony Kornheiser, claimed that NASCAR “fixed” Dale Jr.’s pole run last week. Sports fans should know not to look into claims from someone who doesn’t even follow racing, as Kornheiser himself admitted, but unfortunately many fans did.
No, NASCAR is not fixed; I’m going to come right out with it. Yes, Dale Jr. won the pole. Big deal. No, this does not mean NASCAR purposely fixed his car in order for it to be faster than the rest of the competition. His teammate, Jeff Gordon (who has the exact same equipment) sat on the outside pole. It’s not rocket science. Dale Jr. just had a good pole run. This, however, is only the beginning of the alleged “conspiracy”. Austin Dillon, driver of the Black Richard Childress Racing #3 (reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s legendary #3) sat on the pole for Friday night’s truck race. Some people thought this was another fix by NASCAR. Again, this was a rather stupid claim considering Dillon won 8 poles last year. This guy can qualify well anywhere, so why should a Daytona pole be any different?
The final chapter in the great 2011 Daytona conspiracy revolved around Michael Waltrip, the driver who won the Daytona 500 back in 2001 when Dale died. Friday night was February 18, 10 years to the day after Michael won and Dale died. It turns out that Michael had a pretty fast truck and enough skill to be one of the 5 trucks that finished without any damage from the many accidents that occurred. Fortunately for Michael, he won. Unfortunately for Michael, his rear spoiler seemed to be a little illegal as half of it was lying down, possibly creating a lot less drag and more horsepower. Again, this was apparently NASCAR’s doing. Some believe that NASCAR must have had something to do with the spoiler so Michael could win, making the night more memorable as Waltrip won 10 years to the day after winning his first ever 500, as I noted earlier, which happened to be the tragic anniversary of the Intimidator’s fatal crash.
Many who connected these events were almost certain that this year’s Daytona 500 would end with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in victory lane and that NASCAR would be 100% responsible. Alas, that did not happen. What happened was something much more exciting and was a much better feel good story, in my opinion. Trevor Bayne, a young kid who just turned twenty yesterday, shocked the NASCAR world by coming across the finish line first in the famous red and white #21 Wood Brothers Ford. Not since the 1990 Daytona 500, where Dale Earnhardt blew a tire on the last lap, giving Derrick Cope the win, has there been such an upset in this race. This is something NASCAR and the larger racer community, could not foresee nor predict.
All in all was there a big conspiracy? No. Junior crashed near the end of the race, losing any hope of finally ending his losing streak. The fact is, NASCAR is too complicated a sport to fix or alter the outcome of a race in order for ratings to go up. Sure, it would have helped them a lot if Junior had won, but NASCAR had no control over that. Many would argue that when Richard Petty won his 200th race, while Ronald Reagan was watching from the stands, NASCAR had a large role to play in “fixing” his car in order to make it a storybook ending. Although it’s not difficult to see where fans get this idea, it’s still a little near sighted.
Personally, the whole idea of having a “NASCAR conspiracy” is embarrassing. Kornheiser should be embarrassed and all the fans that believed in this should be embarrassed. Too often, people who are unhappy with an outcome of a race quickly blame NASCAR, and their “fixing” of the races. Why did Jimmie Johnson win 5 consecutive championships? Well he cheated, of course, and NASCAR let them. This has got to stop. All of these rumors about the lack of integrity and morality of the greater NASCAR community has to come to an end. Nothing good comes out of it and as Trevor Bayne proved today, the idea is a complete sham.
Similar to other sporting events, there is such thing as human error. NASCAR officials have made mistakes in the past and sometimes fans take that to be NASCAR showing favoritism. Human error and fixing races are two totally different things, and fans should recognize that. Like columnist Jeff Gluck said, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would not have gone winless since 2008 if NASCAR is rigging the outcome of the races. It doesn’t make logical sense. It’s unfortunate that this even came up, because this year’s Speekweeks is arguably the best in years. Although people are entitled to their own opinions in regards to the actual racing and the outcome of the races, negative views such as this really taint the racing for everyone. All in all fans could not have asked for a better finish to the years’ greatest race. Congratulations to Trevor Bayne for a great win and to the Wood Brothers for their return to victory lane!