The Loose Lugnut: 2012 Daytona 500 Edition

I’ve been watching NASCAR since the latter half of the 1997 season. I don’t even remember what drew me to the sport. Going to college in Daytona Beach was probably a contributor, but plenty of my classmates hated NASCAR. I didn’t grow up watching it as a child or teenager. I guess it was one of those things that once you’re exposed to it you might find that you like it. Maybe it was the entrenched passion of the fans I talked to when discovering racing. Maybe it was this music video. Whatever it was, I got caught up and I’ve continued to follow the sport with different levels of interest for the past 15 years. To some old timers I’m still one of those “new” fans that the sport doesn’t need. But when I make statements like this year’s Daytona 500 is one of the wildest races I’ve seen, there is legitimate racing history for me to make that discernment. The problem is the wildness wasn’t from the actual racing.

Obviously the biggest story of this race was the weather. Certainly there have been rain delayed races before. When it’s a random race at Michigan or Pocono in the middle of June no one seems to notice in the national media. The people affected are the fans, race teams, and sponsors. The problem is the Daytona 500 has adjectives and phrases attached to it like; “The Great American Race” and “The Super Bowl of NASCAR”. I don’t particularly care for that type of hype. I look forward to the Daytona 500 because it’s opening act in a sport that I enjoy watching. It’s “Opening Day”. It’s the emergence of what I call the summer sports. From now until next winter there will be at least one event per weekend that I care to watch.

I stated in my previous post that I was disappointed that the race had been postponed. We had a Daytona 500 party planned Sunday afternoon. We had the party, and the weather where we were was awesome. The lack of a race did not stop us from having a good time. I was disappointed I would not get to watch the race during the day on Monday. I like NASCAR, but paid time off is reserved for other Opening Days. The rain takes away, the rain gives back. When I learned the race had been moved to prime time Monday evening that disappointment turned into a little excitement. Finally summer would get underway on mild evening in February. (As a side note spring is here, the tornado sirens made thier debut this evening)

I guess finally is a bit of misnomer. You see I’m enough of a NASCAR dork that given the opportunity I will watch the Truck Series and Nationwide Series races. In reality point paying races began last Friday evening. If you’re a NASCAR newbie consider the Truck Series the AA of minor leagues, and the Nationwide Series the AAA. Anyone who watched those races knew to expect lots of wrecks and expect the unexpected in the Daytona 500. It’s the nature of the track. Racing is unpredictable as it is, the racing at Daytona and Talladega is even more so. That’s part of the reason NASCAR’s season finale race is not held at these two tracks. For the most part the racing in this Daytona 500 reflected that trend. There was a wreck at the end of lap 1, there were two wrecks in the closing 20 laps. I expected that. What I did not expect was for Juan Pablo Monotya’s car to hit a jet dryer causing a huge fireball and a fire that took several minutes to extinguish, a truck load of Tide detergeant, and a 2 hour red flag to clean-up. I’m familiar with red flags at this race track. I was in attendance for this race. Not to mention the pot-hole incident in the Daytona 500 two years ago.

Some will say that last night’s red flag was a black eye for NASCAR in it’s highest profile race. However, I thought last night was a good reflection of why NASCAR is so popular. Driving machines at high speeds on the edge of control is why we watch. When control is lost, it gets lost spectacularly. As we saw last night spectacular loss of control takes a while to clean up. It’s the nature of the sport. In that regard baseball and NASCAR are similar. There is a lot of mundane stuff that happens. It often lulls even their most diehard fans asleep. But when something riveting and exciting happens, you’re sure to remember it for the rest of your life, even if you watch it from the couch.

Speaking of sitting on the couch, something happened during the “Jet dryer red flag” that I absolutely loved and never seen before. @keselowski, better known as NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, began tweeting from his car. I began following @keselowski on twitter and as a driver last August. Before the Daytona 500 Keselowski had 65,000 twitter followers, by the end of the night he had 200,000. I could write an even longer post on the use of twitter while watching sporting events. Sports is the only reason I have a twitter account. I find it interesting that the NFL and other sports are suppressing the use of twitter by their participants. Yet, on a night and weekend when things were not going right for NASCAR, a driver tweeting during the event became a major positive.

I should have noticed NASCAR’s embracing of social media while watching the truck race. On the back of every crew members’ fire suit, any time a driver, official, or reporter was mentioned on television, so was their twitter handle. In 1997 when I started following NASCAR it was beginning to emerge from a regional southern sport into the mainstream of the American sports landscape. It peaked in popularity in the mid-2000’s and has since been regressing. (Interesting how this follows the US economy as a whole.) You can call NASCAR a lot of things, but what they are really good at is promoting their events. It should surprise no one that they are ahead of the curve concerning social media interaction with their fans. There was speculation that NASCAR may slap Brad Keselowski’s hand for tweeting during a race. However, this afternoon NASCAR released this statement:

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR will not penalize Brad Keselowski for his use of Twitter during Monday night’s Daytona 500.

Nothing we’ve seen from Keselowski violates any current rules pertaining to the use of social media during races. As such, he won’t be penalized.

We encourage our drivers to use social media to express themselves as long as they do so without risking their safety or that of others.

Good for NASCAR.

Lost in all this crazyness is the actual winner of the race: Matt Kenseth. It seems Matt Kenseth gets lost in the national media. He’s not a 5 time Sprint Cup Champion like Jimmie Johnson. He’s not NASCAR’s most popular driver. However, if you look at Kenseth’s numbers he’s put together a nice little career. He is a past Sprint Cup Champion (2003), and now he has two Daytona 500 wins. I know he’s not real exciting. But he’s always in contention, and every once in a while he wins. That’s more than “the most popular driver in NASCAR” has done, there’s something to be said for that. By the way, you can follow @mattkenseth on twitter too.

Now that the hoopla and the hype is over Matt Kenseth will make the media rounds today. He will eventually catch up with the rest of his crew in Phoenix later this week. Kenseth and the rest of the Roush-Fenway team do well at Phoenix, don’t be surprised if he wins two in a row. Now the real season begins.

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