KERCHNER: The Daytona 500 Ain’t What She Used To Be

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Mike Kerchner
Mike Kerchner

CONCORD, N.C. — Call me a curmudgeon if need be because, as they say, if the shoe fits wear it. But the Daytona 500 certainly isn’t what it used to be.

Like many in the racing community, I grew up watching the Daytona 500 on television and it was one of the most anticipated events of the winter.

Among our family and friends, it was even more important than the Super Bowl.

We planned weeks ahead and had gatherings complete with food, drink and betting pools. In those days, the Daytona 500 and NASCAR wasn’t covered 24/7 in much of the country and tuning in on race day, or the day before to watch the delayed telecast of the Twin 125 qualifying races, was how many of us found out what to expect for the coming season.

It was an event, and the drivers were truly the best in the business from all disciplines of American automobile racing.

For decades TV coverage of the 500 came on at noon and the race started soon after. It would all be over before 4 p.m. and there was still time left in the day to do other things. For many, it was breakfast, church, Daytona 500.

For others, it was brunch, Bloody Mary, Daytona 500.

But the goal was always the same; to watch our favorite drivers go as fast as they could for 500 miles at the World Center of Racing.

When we first started watching, it was simply Daytona, later it became The Great American Race, a moniker that only added to the prestige and interest of race fans across the land.

It was NASCAR’s best — Richard Petty (our family’s favorite), Bobby Allison, David Pearson (not our family’s favorite), Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt … the list goes on.

But because of the rules of the time, both from a car standpoint and because of the unique qualifying format, the race was open to everyone. No one was guaranteed a spot in the Daytona 500.

There were always more than 50 drivers and cars vying for the 40 starting spots. Among them were superstars from other genres of racing such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Jr. There were also low-budget entries with “a dollar and a dream.”

Superspeedway legends, short-track heroes and no-name dreamers are what made the Daytona 500 The Great American Race.

Denny Hamlin (11) races ahead of the pack during the 63rd Daytona 500. (Dick Ayers Photo)
Denny Hamlin (11) races ahead of the pack during the 63rd Daytona 500. (Dick Ayers Photo)

However, as NASCAR grew in popularity and the television networks and sponsors had more skin in the game, things began changing.

And that brought us to where we are today. The race starts after 3 p.m., and as a result frequently competes with the late afternoon showers that plague Florida. This year’s race and last year’s would have been completed if started at noon.

Instead, both were rain delayed with last year’s completed on Monday and the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 finishing early on Monday morning with many enthusiasts, including this one, sound asleep.

But those who slept didn’t miss much as the race ended with the predictable carnage that has become common place for The Great American Race. Millions of dollars in equipment was rendered useless in a split second.

These multi-car “big ones,” as the television shills refer to them, have become so predictable and expected that the drivers aren’t even mad about them anymore. No one blames anyone and nobody swings at anybody. It simply “is what it is.”

Being “what it is” is not what made race fans of so many and not what made Daytona the World Center of Racing and the 500 The Great American Race. It was about the thrilling and the unexpected.

The fields aren’t as interesting anymore either. This year, 44 cars showed up for the 40-car field with eight teams competing for four available positions in the field. The other 36 spots were already spoken for thanks to NASCAR’s charter system.

Also, thanks to that charter system, we got to see 62-year-old Derrike Cope in the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2004. I fondly remember cheering for Cope to defeat Dale Earnhardt in the 1990 Daytona 500.

Cope’s victory is a great moment in Daytona 500 history; his final appearance at Daytona was not. He shouldn’t have been there, but the charter system allowed it and kept speedy youngsters Ty Dillon and Noah Gragson out of the race.

It remains that NASCAR kicks off its season with the Daytona 500, considered to be the series’ biggest race, but part of that lure was always the large purses available, not only for winning, but for simply making the race.

NASCAR has standardized purses and doesn’t release that information to the public. It would sure be interesting to know how much Michael McDowell made for winning this year’s race, or what Spire Motorsports’ take was for putting two cars in the top 10.

Call me a curmudgeon, but the old gray mare ain’t what she used to be.