I will be dedicating this year to understanding and appreciating NASCAR. I will not dismiss it as boring because it might not be. I will not mock it as “not a real sport” because at the very least, it’s an activity so intense that questioning whether it’s a sport misses the point.
On Saturday at Daytona, a car going two hundred miles per hour went spinning airborne, melded its engine into a retaining fence and threw a wheel seventy five feet into a grandstand full of people. Not a tire, a wheel—the rubber and the metal. All of it. On Sunday, everybody showed up at the track again for the Daytona 500.
I don’t know how many of the forty-some drivers had a chance to win or how many were really even trying to win. I don’t know what it means that some of them are on the same team. I don’t know why James Franco was serving as some sort of official functionary—the Starter, maybe—or why he thought it’d be in good taste to adopt a southern accent. I don’t know if when he said “Drivers, and Danica, start your engines” he was trying to say what they told him to say and just muffed it or if he went up there and just shot from the hip. I don’t know why Erin Andrews couldn’t find Danica Patrick in the pre-race mass of the drivers, families, and posses. I don’t know why Fox stayed on her narrating her unsuccessful search for Danica Patrick as long as they did. I don’t know if she had anticipated finding 50 Cent, and I don’t know why 50 Cent started to join her on her slightly frantic charge through the crowd. I don’t know if NASCAR invited 50 Cent or if he was just there. I don’t know how NASCAR could have found out about 50 Cent. It’s unlikely I’m ever going to get to the bottom of most of these questions, so better now to get into the meat of the thing. NASCAR isn’t going to be decoded in one day, but here are my early findings:
Danica was the pole sitter on account of her driving the fastest during qualifying. She credited her car for its speed and her crew for their hard work. All drivers always do this.
Ten seconds in, Jeff Gordon pulled ahead of Danica Patrick and it was a crushing blow. I evidently thought I wanted Danica to win at that point. I steadied myself and reasoned it wasn’t a decisive moment in the race and that maybe it was part of her strategy. Maybe being in the front is bad? Maybe it has something to do with drafting?
Shortly thereafter, an empty bag of Lay’s Original potato chips became lodged in the front of Jeff’s car, blocking his radiator or air filter and vindicating Danica. Go ahead, Jeff, be in first place…How to do like that bag? (My hunch is I’m overestimating the threat of bags and that being in the front is perfectly acceptable and in most cases, even preferable.)
The leaders primarily drove on the outside of the track. Darrell Waltrip said it’s because that’s “where the momentum is.” He seemed satisfied with his explanation and his co-commentators were familiar enough with the implication that sometimes some parts of the track are inexplicably faster than others that no further discussion was necessary. Later, a line of cars took to the inside lane and Darrell said, “Now that inside woke up.”
Commercial breaks are unusually frequent and the intervals between them seem to shorten as the race goes on. But it’s such a natural part of the whole affair that it isn’t a problem. A brief segment of racing that is abruptly interrupted without a word of warning may have been shorter than the commercial break that preceded it. There’s something about the race carrying on without us that makes it tolerable though. It’s counterintuitive and may have to do with my not being totally into the actual watching of racing yet, but it feels true.
Side drafting is a thing. Despite one of the auxiliary commentators, whose first name is Mike, diagramed how it works, I continue to not understand it. I suppose you can put that on me or you can put that on Mike. It’d be fairest to meet halfway and say that I’m not great at paying attention and Mike isn’t great at explaining aerodynamics. What I know for certain is that side drafting either makes passing easier or more difficult.
Drivers frequently tell their crew chief that they feel loose. This has something to do with the tires, possibly the lug nuts. Early on, Matt Kenseth thought he was loose, and he was instructed to stay the course and see if it got worse. It turned out he was not loose and everything was fine. Later Matt complained of some vibration, possibly an oil leak or a wheel bearing, and I had a hard time not taking it with a grain of salt.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in contention it’s significantly more exciting than when he isn’t. He wasn’t much of a factor until the end and that’s when it got good. Everybody likes him, but, as far as I can tell, liking him doesn’t make you a front-runner because he doesn’t win that many races.
Jimmie Johnson is the opposite of Junior. When he wins it’s a huge bummer. I don’t have any specific reason to dislike him except that his winning effectively ruined my day, and that starting next Sunday, I will be rooting against him until one of us dies. It’s a shame because he seems like a nice enough guy.