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Ingram: Faster Is Better At Daytona 500

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2010
Jamie McMurray manages to stay ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap of Sunday's 500.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jamie McMurray manages to stay ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap of Sunday's 500. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Just when it appeared NASCAR had patched up the Sprint Cup’s appeal, a patch was needed in Turn 2 to repair the asphalt prior to the finish of the Daytona 500. Oh well. After a splendid finish won by the rejuvenated Jamie McMurray, including the new wrinkle of more than one green-white-checker, NASCAR has succeeded in the short run with its plan to rejuvenate the sport.

It was the late Dick Beaty who used to counsel competitors in the driver meetings before superspeedway races to “save your paybacks for the short tracks.” With safer cars, softer walls, better seats and the HANS Device in place, the new message has been the polar opposite for the 2010 season. After nearly a decade chastened by the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001 and a subsequent close watch on drivers’ aggressiveness, the plan by officials to return NASCAR to a contact sport was a major success.

“We want the drivers to mix it up,” reiterated Chairman and CEO Brian France during one of two lulls to repair the track.

It seemed fitting that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would turn into the best mover and shaker on the track in the final frantic two laps. His father was not only the Intimindator, but also the godfather of contact on superspeedways, something that was frowned on by the preceding generation dominated by Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough.

The new era might have had an incredible comeback story if Dale Earnhardt Jr. had gone from 10th to first in the final two laps of the green-white-checker with his risky moves. As it was, he boldly scythed into the middle groove entering Turn 3 on the last lap and gave McMurray the push he needed to win. He pushed his father’s name in the form of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing back into the Daytona 500 victory lane for the first time since he himself won at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2004.

There was something new and different about patching the track. Six months before the last time the track was paved in August of 1978, Allison had to dance his Bud Moore-owned Ford around Buddy Baker and a pothole to get to the checkered flag and his first of three Daytona 500 trophies. Back then, as in the just-launched new era, drivers were expected to look after themselves. But these days the competition is too close and too deep to expect the field to take up dodging a pothole. Besides, the technology on asphalt repair is better, too. (Although it took the Daytona crew two tries to get it right.)

One race with a record number of different leaders and a great finish does not a season make. And it remains to be seen how the television coverage stacked up to the Winter Olympics on a day when two red flags to repair the track left viewers with time to switch to the action in British Columbia.

There was a cautionary tale on Saturday as well. NASCAR has announced plans to return to a blade-type spoiler in place of a wing on its cars later this spring, just prior to the next restrictor plate race at Talladega. In the Nationwide Series race at Daytona, Tony Stewart held the lead and was not challenged over the course of the closing laps – a reminder of the aerodynamic roadblocks that often occur with the blade spoiler.

All credit is due to NASCAR for opening up the restrictor plates for the 500 to put a faster race back into the hands of the drivers while extending the shark fin onto the rear deck to guard against cars lifting off in accidents. There were wrecks that collected several cars. But at long last, nobody had to suffer through the “Big One” involving 10 or more wrecked cars that so often resulted from drivers having to run flat-out in ultra-close formation due to the tight restrictor plates of yore.

Danica In Daytona 500 in 2011? It’s only speculation at this point, but it’s likely this time next year the story of Danica Patrick’s Speedweeks will focus on an attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500.

If so, Patrick will have to learn how to race bumper-to-bumper better than she demonstrated in the ARCA and Nationwide Series races at Daytona. She prefers a car that is “planted,” but in a tight draft it’s inevitable that a NASCAR chassis is anything but planted.

It’s not exactly news that Patrick tends to be circumspect with her driving, which has been the case during her IndyCar career. The opinion here remains that if Patrick was less reluctant to “carry” or hustle a car and mix it up in traffic she would win more often in an IndyCar. In her defense, any time Patrick crashes it’s big news (witness last Saturday) and she invariably chooses a conservative route, which enables her to run near the front of the field in IndyCars but may ultimately sell her own talents short.

Like her or loathe her, Patrick has succeeded in maintaining the leverage to make things happen in her career.

Throughout her 2009 “contract year” of negotiations in IndyCar and NASCAR, the emphasis was on announcing the different parts of the process at the politically correct times. So nothing official about next year’s Daytona 500 is likely to come out until after she completes a 13-race, part-time season in the Nationwide Series. But it’s likely there are contract stipulations already built in for Patrick to make the move up to the Sprint Cup event at Daytona next year.

Nobody ever shows contracts to journalists, but Patrick’s contract with Andretti Autosport to continue in IndyCar likely has an option for both sides in its third year. If Patrick is going to make the jump to NASCAR, she needs to find out about her ability to compete at the Sprint Cup level before the end of the 2011 season.

Given the leverage of her ability, good looks and her marketing power, it’s possible Patrick could turn the present situation around in 2012 – running full-time in the more lucrative Sprint Cup and returning to the Indy 500 each May.

US F1 To Be Ready?: The official statements at US F1 continue to emphasize the team plans to be at the Formula One season opener in Bahrain in one month’s time on Mar. 14. Thus far, the team has yet to announce a major sponsor or a second driver and has not announced any formal plan to roll out its first Type 1 car for public viewing. Two other start-ups, Lotus and Virgin Racing, have introduced their new cars and the latter is already testing in Spain.

It’s clear from media visits to US F1’s facilities in Huntersville, N.C. – including those by RacinToday.com – that the expertise and technical capacity are not lacking. It’s also clear the team plans to be a bona fide constructor instead of purchasing a car from an outside source.

According to a variety of informed sources, the problem has been financing. The only major sponsorship to be announced thus far came on board with the signing of Argentinian driver Jose Maria Lopez, who is said to be bringing $8 million in backing from his native country. YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley is considered a primary investor. But his presence and ability to help the new team gain exposure also was counted on to bring in needed sponsorship.

Much of the commentary in Europe questioning whether US F1 will make the grid has come from either the offices of Bernie Ecclestone in London or directly from the F1 business boss himself. At stake is the legal right of US F1 to participate in the world championship as a signatory to the Concorde Agreement, which governs the relationship between the sanctioning body FIA and competing teams. There is widespread speculation that the team risks losing its legal status to participate if it does not attempt to make the grid in Bahrain, although an official statement from the FIA says failure to participate in the season opener would be an “infringement,” falling short of calling it a violation.

The fourth start-up team, Spanish-based Campos, has publicly acknowledged being in financial straits and may not be able to make payments to Dallara, the Italian car builder constructing its entry. With the Stefan GP team that is not a signatory to the Concorde waiting in the wings with Toyota’s intended entry for 2010, the month prior to the F1 season opener promises to be interesting for those just trying to make the grid as well as the favorites at the front.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2010
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