Who would have predicted that Daytona Speedweeks would result in a driver leading 1/8 of a lap to win his eighth race at the track after the front four drivers ran out of fuel, an announcement of a temporary Daytona short track for 2013, a rookie that never competed on a track larger than a mile and a half winning the truck race, a driver coming from 11th to the win in the last corner after the top ten drivers all wreck, a Daytona 500 being run on Monday night/Tuesday early morning and a freak accident that almost resulted in three underfunded teams and a start-up team finishing in the top four in the biggest race of the year? Even the nearby short track in New Smyrna Beach had some unusual controversy when perennial Tour-Type Modified favorite Ted Christopher won his first night, wrecked the second night and then came back and won the following night. However, after the third race another competitor protested the winning motor. After TC and crew refused to have the engine torn down they were disqualified and packed up and went home. Was this a disastrous Speedweeks or a huge success? Regardless, I'm glad the racing season is upon us!
There were a few drivers that I had my eye on going into the last couple weeks, and they all showed that they belong in their respective series:
The first was a no-brainer. Bobby Gerhart Racing once again overcame the odds after their qualifying time was disallowed and was forced to start 42nd. An unorthodox pit strategy early in the race put them a lap down, but the team took advantage of the "free pass" rule to get back on the lead lap. Obviously some luck is involved to win any race, but the team keeps showing year in and year out that they are capable of putting themselves in contention for the win no matter what obstacles they need to overcome. Pitting one lap after the rest of the competitors during an early caution turned out to be the unexpected winning strategy.
In the Truck Series race, the racer I was most impressed with was Grant Enfinger. After his recent performance in ARCA and the last couple years in the Truck Series races at Talladega, it came as no surprise to me to see him steadily marching through the field. He never contended for the lead, but besides the brush he had with Ty Dillon in the major wreck involving at that time leader Johnny Sauter he drove like a veteran throughout the entire race. I noticed that he ran the inside line during most of the race which put him in a spot to make some impressive maneuvers to avoid some wrecks, and he would occasionally get the momentum and find a hole in the middle with former Daytona winner and fellow Alabama driver Rick Crawford in tow on a couple of occasions. For the most part, he brought the truck home in one piece with a respectable 12th place finish.
Danica might have been the fastest qualifier for the Nationwide race, but the girl I was watching was Johanna Long who started 21st and finished 21st. I believe she was involved in one of the late race wrecks and she did fall a lap down once or twice, but the fact that she finished the race and gained a full race's worth of track time in a Nationwide Series car is something she and the ML Motorsports team should be proud of.
During the Daytona 500 and the days leading up to it, one of the hardest working teams had to be Tommy Baldwin Racing. They gave up last year's guaranteed owner points, and while I questioned this move at first they certainly proved me wrong when they ran a very smart Duel race on Thursday to get into Sunday's field. Of course the race didn't run until Monday night, but Dave Blaney drove a smart race again throughout the 200 laps. For a short time I thought that the Central Pennsylvania fans would have something to celebrate with Blaney in the lead during the long red flag period, since Blaney is a World Of Outlaws graduate and sponsor Ollie's Bargain Outlet was founded in state capital Harrisburg. The win wouldn't occur, but like Enfinger in the Truck race Blaney ran the inside line most of the closing laps and made some evasive maneuvers in order to minimize damage in the late race accidents. Blaney and the hard working Tommy Baldwin Racing team brought the car home in 15th, a very good start to the 2012 season.
Earlier in the month of February, I had the chance to chat with a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver and team that did not make the trip down to Daytona. Todd Peck and Peck Motorsports had their truck and hauler on display at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on a cold Saturday afternoon. If that last name sounds familiar, he is the nephew of Tom Peck who had some impressive runs in the NASCAR Nationwide Series during the late 1980's and early 1990's. After gaining experience in the Allison Legacy Series, Pro Cup Series, Super Cup Stock Car Series and the K&N East Series, Todd and his team made the move to the Truck Series for a few races in 2011 returning the family's #96 to one of the top levels of stock car racing. The team plans to race 10-12 times in 2012 starting at the third race of the season, the debut of the Truck Series at Rockingham Speedway. The team's hauler was also on display to show off their plans to convert it into a "green" machine with LED lighting and solar power and run on a blend of diesel and biofuel as they make their journey to and from the race track. In addition, the team is racing to spread awareness about Juvenile Arthritis, a condition Todd suffered from as a child. They even gained some local television exposure when Peck teamed up with a local ambulance company to grant a fan's wish to meet him after she was hospitalized for a serious arthritis condition a day earlier. Sadly, the young lady passed away last week and the team will race at Pocono later in the year in her memory.
Local racing is getting ready to start up for the 2012 season as well, and last week I had the opportunity to head to Reading, Pennsylvania for the 27th Annual Racing Legends Reunion and Car Show. The week long event is held at the Reading Fairgrounds Mall, which was formerly the site of the Reading Fairgrounds Speedway. The show features several appearances from current local drivers as well as reunions featuring drivers from the past. This year's showcase was NASCAR sanctioned Grandview Speedway, which is celebrating it's 50th anniversary in 2012. Most notably were the number and variety of race cars on display inside the mall including different types of Dirt Modifieds, Dirt Late Models, Midgets, Micro Sprints, SCCA Sports Cars and much more.
Before I sign off with this post, I'd like to return back to a major positive that came out of Daytona Speedweeks. The ones that may not always be commended as much as they should be: the track crew. Not only did they do a phenomenal job getting the race track back into a raceable condition following the unimaginable jet dryer fire in such a short amount of time, but the job they did throughout the entire two week period so that we could get to the point of seeing the Daytona 500 take place better late than never. Where I work we recently switched cleaning companies to ServiceMaster and certainly now I see why. Finally, kudos to everyone else involved that made sure first and foremost to assure that those affected by any accidents at Daytona International Speedway escaped major injury.