DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — I like Jimmie Johnson. He’s a nice guy, the biggest talent in his sport and a deserved winner of Sunday’s Daytona 500.
But to become the Great American Race the 500 required more. It required something that would prompt fans at Daytona International Speedway to jump and shout and neighbors across the country to complain about the spontaneous burst of noise next door.
If the race had lasted another half-lap Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have delivered it. Had NASCAR’s favorite son prevailed, the victory would have been one of the most exhilarating and important in 500 history.
Fans came to Daytona excited. Danica Patrick brought thousands of new fans to Sprint Cup, and the new Gen 6 cars have the potential to attract thousands more. Unlike their predecessors, the cars look as if you’d drive them on purpose.
But Sunday’s opening day excitement was muted by Saturday’s carnage. Fourteen fans were treated for injuries at the speedway’s infield hospital and 14 were treated a mile away at Halifax Health Medical Center. At least seven fans remain hospitalized.
The fans were injured by debris from an 12-car crash.
The only evidence of the carnage Sunday was fresh white paint on the wall the cars hit and a wild collection of tire tracks on the asphalt below that appear to simultaneously lead everywhere and nowhere.
Hours before the race fans took cellphone pictures of one another in front of the wall. Two men – they weren’t in the same group – laid on the steeply-banked track and had their pictures taken from a girlfriend or buddy standing on the bottom.
A woman with long brown hair posed next to the wall. A police officer warned her about the fresh paint. She posed anyway.
Despite the festive mood, the damage is real. NASCAR will respond because it must. A tire sailed above the 22-foot high fence, or though it, Saturday. So make the fence 25 feet.
While a victory by Earnhardt would not heal the injured, it could provide a salve, a reminder why fans give up their money and time to come to the track.
Earnhardt had not been a factor at Daytona. He finished eighth in his first race and ninth in his second. On Sunday he never led.
And then, on the last turn on the last lap, the same lap on which Saturday’s wreck occurred, Earnhardt took off as if propelled. The push came from Mark Martin.
Earnhardt is good in Daytona. Four times – in 2001, ’10, ’12 and ’13 – he finished second and he won in ’04.
All Sunday it was as if hanging above the track was a yellow sign shaped like a pennant: NO PASSING ZONE.
And then the sign was removed and Earnhardt came flying and with a final spectacular pass he could have won.
“Yeah, it’s like a drug, you know – I assume,” Earnhardt says of winning the sport’s biggest race. “It’s such a high. You just don’t know when you’ll ever get that opportunity again, or if you’ll ever get that opportunity again.”
Before Earnhardt finishes his post-race interview, he says he has something to say. He speaks passionately and not in response to a question.
Earnhardt loves his sport, and he realizes attendance and television ratings have declined steadily. Some seasons every straightaway and every curve on every track is seemingly up hill.
Despite Saturday’s accident – and Earnhardt talks about his concern for the injured – he’s convinced his sport has found traction it has lacked.
There “just seemed to be a different vibe inside the infield,” Earnhardt says. “People seemed more excited about what was getting ready to happen.”
On Sunday “there seemed to be a whole lot more people here, seemed to be a lot more excitement about the race.
“That really was the biggest motivator for me today,” he says. “I think we’re headed in the right direction. We may not be consistently each week. But I thought (Sunday) for some reason just felt like we’re on the right track as a sport.”
I trust Earnhardt’s insight and after Saturday sincerely hope he’s right.