Monday, February 21, 2000

Lots of driving, but very little racing at Daytona

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The last 40 miles were harrowing. It was bumper-to-bumper, wheel-to-wheel, three cars wide, with sudden lead changes and tension-filled turns.

        Then, at last, we pulled into the parking lot for the Super Bowl of stock car racing, the Daytona 500. Or, as it should henceforth be known: Tedium On Tires.

        NASCAR, as everyone knows, is America's fastest-growing sports phenomenon. What no one seems to know is why. Perhaps 200,000 aspiring sardines packed themselves into the Daytona International Speedway Sunday for a three-hour race that more closely resembled a convoy.

        Outside the track, driving was bedlam. Inside the track, it was boredom. Sominex is now available in sheet metal.

        “That race looked like they passed out spiked coffee in the old folks' home,” said Kentucky driver Jeremy Mayfield. “It was just ride, pick your spots, ride, pick your spots.”

        “They took the competition out of it,” said Dale Earnhardt,

        who finished where he started: 21st.

        You see more passes attempted at the junior prom. You see more daring maneuvers in the 10-items-or-less checkout line. If you saw any one lap of Sunday's Daytona 500, you pretty much saw them all.

        Dale Jarrett claimed his third Daytona title, passing Johnny Benson only four laps from the finish. On the surface, this suggested some suspense. (Jarrett, after all, had wrecked his car in practice Saturday). Still, with five Fords stalking Benson's Pontiac in the lead draft for nearly 100 miles, the leader's legitimacy was always in doubt.

        Benson was still ahead 10 miles before the checkered flag, but was found fraudulent at the last restart, when Jarrett and the pack sailed past as if the leader had shifted gears into reverse. Benson managed to finish 12th without mechanical problems and despite a closing caution flag. Jarrett, the pole-sitter, appears to have toyed with him.

        “I knew that the Fords were going to gang up on us at the end,” Benson said. “There was nothing you could do about that. One against however-many just wasn't going to happen.”

        Benson couldn't hope to block the whole Ford pack on a restart, and he didn't have enough car to pull away. The only real intrigue at the end involved which Ford would finish first.

        Jarrett and Mark Martin initially agreed on a joint effort, and sought to squeeze Benson from the top of the track. But after one aborted attempt, Jarrett abruptly ended the conspiracy and left every driver to his own devices. Martin went high in Turn Two, but Jarrett said he spotted Jeff Burton going low and elected to go lower.

        “I got lied to,” Martin said.

        “Mark had radioed and asked, if he went high, if I would go with him,” Jarrett said. “But we didn't get a very good run on Benson. Nothing else was said. Then, when Mark went high (on the next lap), I went into the corner high, with every intention of going with him, but then I saw the 99 car (Burton) going low, and I was getting ready to lose my spot. I didn't lie to Mark Martin. All I wanted to do was protect my position.”

        Except for coordinated attacks and unilateral betrayals, the race consisted largely of a single-file procession. Twenty-three cars finished on the lead lap, and the most significant moves from starting grid to finish line were made during pit stops.

        “It's not like it used to be where three-wide is comfortable,” said Bobby Labonte. “Three-wide is not very comfortable at all.”

        “You've gotta get in single file because of the draft,” said Jimmy Spencer. “Every time you'd slip out of draft, you'd lose two or three tenths (of a second) to the leaders, so you knew you'd better get back in line.”

        Some drivers blamed horsepower-inhibiting, safety-enhancing restrictor plates for the relatively dull racing. The Chevrolet camp continued to complain about technical adjustments favoring Ford. (Something to do with aerodynamics, something to do with shock absorbers; more than you want to know.)

        “Unless they do something,” Chevy owner Richard Childress said, “Rockingham (next week) is going to be another terrible show.”

        Until they do something, the Daytona 500 will be about 499 miles too long. E-mail Tim Sullivan at