|Race winner Denny Hamlin|
|Getty Images for NASCAR|
Just prior to the opening ceremonies for NASCAR's annual Sprint Unlimited, the Fox Sports 1 Network presented television viewers with a gorgeous shot of a full moon boldly shining over the Daytona International Raceway. For centuries the great philosophers have found themselves staring at the majesty of a full moon while wondering if it indeed had some unknown power source capable of creating unexplainable moments. That may very well be true. There were some rather powerful, and even bizarre, moments underneath that Daytona moon during the Sprint Unlimited.
THUMBS-UP. With less than two laps remaining, in the third and final segment, of the Sprint Unlimited, Denny Hamlin, and his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, made a beautiful low line move on the backstretch that place him in the lead for good. It was the type of driver move that makes fans jump out of their seats while yelling "WHOA, DID YOU SEE THAT?"
Hamlin made that move in a car that, later in victory lane, he called "phenomenal." Actually, the driver was also phenomenal. Hamlin led 27 of the special exhibition event's 75 scheduled laps. Oh yeah, he also got to collect a huge check worth $201,139 for a job well done.
It's well known that the 2013 NASCAR season was difficult for Hamlin. A savage crash at the Auto Club Speedway last spring led to a serious back injury that caused Hamlin to miss some races and spend the remainder of the season in pain while dealing with an intense rehab program.
However he finished the year by winning the season ending race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now, with the Sprint Unlimited win, he's two for two in the victory department and his team's momentum is as powerful as the full moon. Don't be too surprised if Hamlin and company emerges as major players during the upcoming Daytona 500.
WHAT'S-UP. The first of the Sprint Unlimited's full moon situations came during lap 28 of the event's first 30 lap segment. That's when Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet went spinning off of the speedway's tri oval and directly into the inside wall of the frontstretch.
At first a theory was presented indicating that Johnson may have been tapped by driver Kevin Harvick. However, television replays, from multiple camera angles, quickly proved that Harvick had nothing to do with this incident. This was a rare miscue by NASCAR's reigning, and six time, champion. Johnson had to settle for a 17th place finish in the 18 car line up.
WHAT'S-UP. The next full moon incident hit hard and fast and arrived on lap 37. FrontStretch contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano triggered a Daytona style "big one" that also heavily impacted the cars driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Kevin Harvick.
Kenseth later noted that he was riding behind the Ford of Brad Keselowski which checked up. That led to Kenseth's sudden move to avoid hitting him which, in turn, led to the contact with Logano.
THUMBS-UP. Always a class act, Kenseth accepted responsibility for the wreck and said he truly felt bad about the number of cars that got wrecked.
THUMBS-UP. Everyone at Daytona, as well as everyone watching on television, were delighted to see Tony Stewart climb out of his wrecked car. Stewart is still recuperating from a broken leg sustained from a sprint car racing accident last summer which required three rounds of surgery as well as a lengthy rehab process that is still ongoing. The Sprint Unlimited was Stewart's first race since that accident.
THUMBS-UP. Danica Patrick actually did a very good job threading the needle to avoid contact in the big one. But, in the process of taking that evasive action, her left side tires ran into the frontstretch grass which sent her Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet into a spin. Still, at this particular moment, her worst case scenario was a set of flat spotted tires.
WHAT'S-UP. Patrick's free pass from the "big one" carnage came to an end when her stopped car was hit hard by, of all people, her boyfriend: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. His Roush Fenway Racing Ford sustained major front end damage in the crash. Beyond the fact that turning the wheels of the car was just about impossible, there was the added element of a badly buckled hood on the car that made it impossible for the driver to see where he was going. Stenhouse simply didn't know Patrick was parked in his path until the extremely hard collision.
THUMBS-UP. Despite the severity of the crash they were involved in, the first couple of NASCAR still managed to maintain their sense of humor. During a post wreck interview Stenhouse said: "I don't think Jack, (team owner Jack Roush), has insurance on these cars. Maybe that would be a good thing." Patrick concluded her comments with: "hey, I just got hit by my boyfriend, isn't that a bummer?"
WHAT'S-UP. Imagine, if you will, that you are a NASCAR official on duty in race control located high above the speedway. All of a sudden you receive a bizarre radio transmission that says: "Tower-we're on fire!"
That message came from Brent Bodine, NASCAR's official pace car driver, after the interior of the Chevrolet SS pace car filled with smoke due to actual flames coming from the trunk of the car. It was later revealed that the trunk of these pace cars contain battery packs that power's the emergency lighting system. It's now believed that there was an electrical short in one of the batteries that caused the fire.
Fortunately, there was a back up pace car available and the show went on. NASCAR officials had no immediate comment on the incident and suggested to the media that they should contact the official Chevrolet representative in the garage area. It was later reported that the factory rep absolutely had no comment on the fire.
WHAT'S-UP. With a better than good chance to win the Sprint Unlimited, Dale Earnhardt Jr found himself hitting the turn one wall, with less than ten laps remaining, following some contact with Marcos Ambrose. While making his way to pit road, an incensed Earnhardt found Ambrose and solidly hit his rear bumper followed by placing a scrape mark down the right side of Ambrose's Ford.
WHAT'S-UP. More and more, in NASCAR Sprint Car Series racing, we're seeing evidence that indicates victims of crashes really should examine a video replay before taking their frustrations out on another driver. After seeing the replay of his wreck, Earnhardt realized that the incident wasn't entirely Ambrose's fault and immediately reduced his anger level.
WHAT'S-UP. Earnhardt's post wreck video reality check likely didn't appease his massive fan club known as the Junior Nation. They're probably still hissing at the Australian driver who helped their driver find the retaining wall. In fact, they'll probably start calling him "Kangaroo Meat" again.
THUMBS-UP. There were some fast thinking crew chiefs, backed by fast moving crew members, who took advantage of lengthy caution periods to make repairs on their battered race cars that led to strong finishes. These crews effectively made chicken salad out of chicken do do.
A perfect example is the Joe Gibbs Racing crew who services Kyle Busch's #18 Toyota. In the opening laps of the third segment of the race, Busch went spinning through turn four and wound up taking a rough ride through the frontstretch grass area. It was a fantastic save by the driver that kept him from wrecking the car, but the ride through the crash did cause a lot of front end damage. The crew went to work, during multiple trips to the pits, and make the effective repairs that allowed their driver to finish third in the final rundown.
The same principle applies to Kevin Harvick whose Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was badly damaged following the race's nine car "big one." Multiple visits to the pits allowed the team to give their driver a car that was manageable and the result was a fifth place finish.
During the first segment of the race, Ryan Newman lost the power steering in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. That prompted Michael Waltrip, working the Fox Sports 1 broadcast booth, to quip: "he's a big dude, he can handle that." Actually, the loss of power steering in a race car isn't exactly an easy situation, but, again, through multiple stops, Newman's crew also rose to the occasion, made the repairs, and helped their driver to an eighth place finish.
This is what it takes to win races and championships.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS.
THUMBS-UP to the performance levels of NASCAR's Generation Six race car. It was clearly evident that the detailed process that went into the new 2014 rules package has created an increase in competition and passing ability.
THUMBS-UP to NASCAR for again allowing the fans to vote on the strategic aspects to the Sprint Unlimited's format. The final vote that required mandatory pit stops prior to the third, and final, segment was especially well received.
DOUBLE THUMBS-UP. The wait is finally over. When the green flag fell on the Sprint Unlimited, it also signaled the official start of NASCAR 2014.