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Ingram: Chitwood, Daytona Crew Stepped Up

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 28 2012

The crews which worked the 2012 Daytona 500 did a world class job. (RacinToday/HHP by Brian Lawdermilk)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Some post-race observations at this year’s Daytona 500:

A Daytona 500 that failed to start on Sunday and ended on Tuesday is bound to be memorable. About the only thing missing from an unusual sequence of events was a victory by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who nevertheless ran within a couple car lengths of ending his losing streak.

If the pothole problem that plagued the 2010 race cost former Daytona International Speedway president Robin Braig his job, then the management of the “Delay-tona 500” by current president Joie Chitwood III likely secured his job for many years to come.

After working at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there wasn’t any doubt about the expertise and experience of the grandson of thrill show driver Joie Chitwood. The experienced showed on this particular weekend which included quite a few repairs of the SAFER barriers. Chitwood III’s Daytona facility was prepared for one inch of rain over a 24-hour period, sudden demands on his temporary staffers to work long hours on Monday and the problem of Mt. Vesuvius appearing on the banking in Turn 3 with 40 laps to go.

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Chitwood acknowledged they weren’t fully schooled on how to deal

Joie Chitwood III in the front row at Daytona International Speedway. (Photos courtesy of Daytona International Speedway)

with a jet-fuel fire of the sort that occurred after Juan Montoya’s car hit one of International Speedway Corporations jet blowers, essentially a turbine engine with a huge kerosene fuel tank riding on a small trailer behind a dualie pick-up.

But it was a testament to training and preparation that the track’s crew literally saved the 500 by resolving the fire quickly enough to prevent serious decimation of the racing surface. Had the fire that looked like a trail of lava continued beyond several minutes, the asphalt would have been consumed. Once the fire was out, the rest was procedural – something that seemed to throw the pothole crew for a loop it bears remembering – to get the surface ready for racing again.

Chitwood said that had he been asked before the race if his crew could handle such an event, he wouldn’t have been sure. “If we would have talked about having 200 gallons of burning jet fuel on the racetrack during the event,” he said, “I’m not sure what the likelihood would have been of completing the race or having a surface that could have been used to race.”

Had repairs to the track not been completed, would Dave Blaney and hard-working team owner/crew chief Tommy Baldwin Jr. have won the Daytona 500?

Dave Blaney gave Tommy Baldwin Racing and Ollie's some big moments. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

Sitting at the front of the field after being caught by the red flag for the fire prior to a final pit stop, Blaney was looking like the biggest surprise winner at Daytona since …Trevor Bayne.

Blaney had stayed out for one extra lap to let the pit road clear so Baldwin and the team could work on some damage to the right front corner of their Ollies Bargain Outlet Chevy. “We knew we were going to take time to do that and probably start at the back of the pack anyway so we would lead a lap (and then pit),” said Blaney during the red flag as drivers congregated by their cars on the back straight. “And look where we are sitting.”

Ollie’s Outlet indeed. A “bargain basement” Daytona 500 victory was in the offing.

In retrospect, there was always the possibility NASCAR would run several caution laps to test the surface before ending the race early due to technical difficulties. So the four cars led by Blaney which had not pitted might have been forced to come to the pit road for fuel – although it’s likely they might have stayed in front until they literally ran out.

In fifth place at the time, eventually Matt Kenseth – his Roush Fenway Racing Ford clearly the strongest car in the field – might have won on a technicality again had the red flag/caution scenario played out. It was in 2009 that Kenseth took the lead from Elliott Sadler shortly before rain halted the race early. And it was in 2003 that Kenseth won the last points championship under the old Latford system after winning only one race. Both came to be known in some quarters as dubious distinctions

Despite the gravel hitting the crush panels in Turn 3 after the repairs, what a relief that Kenseth was able to drive his way to the biggest victory of his career without any asterisk attached to it.

In general, the new McLaren-engineered electronic fuel injection systems worked well, although the contending Toyota of Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer lost fuel pressure and his Toyota had to be pushed into the pits and Hendrick’s Jeff Gordon had an unexplained major engine failure after running in the lead pack. Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne also experienced what appeared to be fuel pressure issues.

Jack Roush, whose team celebrated its 300th victory in all forms of racing, said his cars and engines performed so well in preparation for the race that he was more concerned about the new fuel injection. “I was more nervous about the durability of all the components that were unknown in the fuel injection than I was about being competitive,” he said. “And we had a fuel pressure problem that we’ve got to address in a couple of our cars or three of our cars tonight.”

And what about a stellar crowd for a race postponed by 30 hours?

Theories abounded about the crowd estimated at well over 100,000 in a track where the capacity, including the infield, is around 170,000. Most of the seats on the front stretch grandstand were occupied.

Some suggested gate workers were not checking tickets and allowing people to just walk in, although this writer did not witness such ease of access when arriving.

Another theory held that ticket scalpers had bought up tickets from fans who knew they couldn’t return on Monday. The fact many could not return was documented by local newspapers and electronic media outlets. But whether these folks sold or gave tickets away remains a mystery. Enterprising local residents might have foreseen the opportunity and scooped up some tickets during the exodus on Monday once the rain started falling heavily.

When asked about the possibility of fans walking in without a ticket, track president Chitwood responded, “I can tell you the first thing we staffed appropriately were gates and ticket takers. So we tried to make sure that anyone who had a ticket from yesterday got in. But joking aside, I was impressed with the crowd. That really beat my expectation in terms of the first time we’ve ever had to be delayed to Monday.”

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 28 2012
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