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You won the 500. What've you done lately?

16 February 2010

Forget everything you just saw.

On Sunday, Jamie McMurray won a Daytona 500 that gave fans some of the most dramatic, edge-of-the-seat action in the history of the Great American Race — when the cars weren't parked on pit road.

The race also featured two long, tedious stoppages while track workers attempted — hardly with unqualified success — to repair a hole in the low-side racing line near the transition between turns one and two. By the end of the six-hour-plus marathon, the temperature had dropped into the 40s.

Ultimately, McMurray took the chequered flag under the lights, squelching, for this event, all the good intentions of earlier start times for NASCAR races, one of the mantras of fan-responsive 2010.

The good news is that McMurray's popular win, which also featured runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s eruption from a frantic pack of cars to chase McMurray through the final two corners, gave those inclined to be equitable good reason to forget the problems with the racetrack — at least temporarily.

The bad news for McMurray is that a victory in the Daytona 500 is all but worthless as a predictor of what will happen the rest of the season.

Kevin Harvick won the 2007 race and hasn't won a points event since. The same goes for Ryan Newman, who hasn't been to victory lane in a Cup race — points or otherwise — since he took the chequered flag in the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008.

Matt Kenseth, winner of last year's rain-shortened race, won the following week in California but struggled for the rest of the year and missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

The bottom line is that the Daytona 500 is a special event, not only in its import but also in its conduct. Daytona is a superspeedway where restrictor plates, designed to limit horsepower and speed, are mandated by NASCAR.

This week, at California, what drivers call the “real” Sprint Cup season begins with a three-week diet of 2-mile (California) and 1.5-mile tracks (Las Vegas and Atlanta), the staples of the Cup schedule, where restrictor plates give way to open motors.

“I don't think there are things we can take to California, other than that we got the setup good for Jamie,” crew chief Kevin Manion said at Monday morning's champions breakfast at Daytona. “That was encouraging. It was more that you dialed the setup in, and the car stayed good in the long run, and that's encouraging to take to California, knowing that the team worked well together.”

In terms of performance, there will be an entirely new set of variables at California. Even if success at Daytona is hardly a guarantee of strong results in the future, however, those who run well at the 2.5-mile superspeedway can't seem to resist the siren song of optimism.

Earnhardt, who failed to score a top ten in the final twelve races of 2009, is no exception.

“I'm happy for the finish, and it validates the changes they made (at the shop) and the hard work they've done over the offseason to get better,” Earnhardt said after the race. “I just hope we can keep it up. This was a little bit of a handling race. We didn't have too bad a racecar, so…

“You can say that this is plate racing, but it really wasn't today, most of the week anyways. It was more of a 'who-could-handle-the-best.' I don't know. I feel good about our chances going into the next couple weeks.”

Maybe so, but don't look at the Cup standings until after the fourth race of the season, March 7 at Atlanta. If Earnhardt's in the top twelve then, odds are he'll be there after 26 races, when the field for the Chase is set. The same goes for McMurray.

Historically, the standings after Atlanta have been a reliable barometer. Daytona? Not so much. In 2009, for instance, only two of the top twelve finishers in the Daytona 500 went on to qualify for the Chase.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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