Racing, like any other sport, can stir our emotions.
We can be angry (“Can’t believe that @#*&! wrecked my driver!”) to gloriously elated (“Dale Earnhardt finally wins the Daytona 500!”).
Such was the case this past weekend. At Daytona International Speedway we saw two of the most compelling and entertaining races in NASCAR’s history.
They were the kind of events that fans crave – and want to see more of – and the sanctioning body needs in this era of diminishing interest.
Unpredictable circumstances and scenarios generated the high intensity of the weekend – which was fueled by unexpected participants.
Consider the PowerShares QQQ 300 XFINITY Series race on Feb. 17. There was some good racing throughout but what seared it into our emotions was the close finish between Tyler Reddick and Elliott Sadler.
That finish was set up only after a record five overtime periods and a red flag. It came down to a duel between JR Motorsports (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) teammates – which in itself provided high drama.
Reddick beat Sadler by 0.000-second (that figure is correct), the closest finish in NASCAR history, eclipsing the mark of 0.001-second set in the duel that took place between Butch Miller and Mike Skinner in a truck race in Colorado in 1995.
The finish was so close that, to some, even video wasn’t conclusive. After repeated viewings they thought perhaps Sadler did win the race.
It was a darn good day for Earnhardt Jr. – the recently retired driver who remains NASCAR’s most popular figure.
And perhaps what made the event even more compelling was that Reddick, the newcomer at 22, beat NASCAR stalwart Sadler, considered a championship contender.
Before the race it was reasonable to consider Sadler a favorite.
But no one thought Reddick would win the race – no one.
It was hard to imagine that the Daytona 500 might have a closer finish – and it didn’t. But for many reasons it had a more emotional one.
As you know, Austin Dillon was the winner. He led only one lap – the last. He won driving for his grandfather/owner Richard Childress. His achievement came 20 years after the death of Earnhardt, who was also Childress’ driver and the last to put a No. 3 Chevrolet in victory lane for the Daytona 500.
None of which was lost on Dillon.
“There is a lot of pressure on me to preform because I have had a little bit of everything,” he said. “But I like that pressure. The same with the No 3. There is a lot of pressure behind that. But I’m willing to take that and go with it.”
However emotional Dillon’s victory might have been, in one man’s opinion it was greater for the driver who finished second.
He did so in a close finish – one that reminded us of what we had seen the previous day.
Wallace Jr. became the highest finishing African-American driver in Daytona 500 history. He nearly put a No. 43 Richard Petty-owned car into Daytona’s victory lane for the eighth time.
Wallace Jr. desperately wanted to win the race. It would have made history. He and his family were emotional afterward, not for what could have been, but for what Wallace Jr. achieved.
There are a few things to be noted here. Wallace Jr. is the first African-American to hold a regular Monster Series NASCAR Cup ride since Wendell Scott, a pioneer who is the only black driver to win a race and a member of the Hall of Fame.
He has advantages Scott never had. Scott competed on a shoestring budget with second-hand equipment. He was burdened as a minority in a white-only sport.
Wallace Jr., who has already proven he has ability, races with Richard Petty Motorsports. Perhaps it is not considered a powerhouse team but it has much more than offered Scott and attracts attention because of its iconic owner – known as the once and forever King.
Like Dillon, Wallace Jr. knows his circumstances well. There is pressure to perform. And, also like Dillon, he has shown he can handle it.
“Thank you to the King for giving me this opportunity,” he said. “We know how much stress this team has been through in the last three or four months just trying to get this program together.
“It’s good to see the No. 3 back in victory lane here in Daytona with the No. 43 at the top of the board as well.”
Ultra-close finishes, young drivers coming to the forefront to prove they are capable, high drama and even higher emotions. We saw all of this at Daytona in a memorable weekend.
It was good for us. It was good for NASCAR.
It will also be good to see it all again – soon.
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