NASCAR gets dream start for Daytona 500

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:51 PM ET

TORONTO - There are plenty of folks out there in motor racing land — especially those whose passions are in open wheel racing — who look at NASCAR and complain that the France family must have made a pact with the devil to deliver their souls to eternal damnation in return for spectacular luck on the race track.

How else can you explain that in a season where NASCAR Sprint Cup is trying to win back legions of fans who have abandoned stock car racing, its two most popular drivers by a country mile — Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet and Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet— wind up on the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Week after week last season, critics pounded on NASCAR bosses for falling attendance and dropping television ratings, in spite of a great product on the track and a New York Yankee-like champion in Jimmie Johnson.

So Brian France and his minions tinkered with the points system, reconstructed the playoff package and re-paved Daytona’s 2.5 mile super speedway.

But, privately, everyone who gets a pay cheque at NASCAR’s headquarters knew that it was all only window dressing.

If they wanted the fans back what that was needed was for Junior or Gordon to start winning again.

And on Sunday on the first day of qualifying for the Great American Race, NASCAR got both with a 1-2 front row in Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets.

You could hear the sigh of relief all the way to Canada.

And if you think those two spots on the front row won’t mean much when the race starts, think again. Statistics show that in Daytona 500 history a giant share of winners — 16 — have come from the front row.

Earnhardt stopped the clock at 186.089 m.p.h. only moments after his HMS teammate Gordon put down a lap of 185.966 m.p.h.

Two surprises in the top five were 19-year-old Trevor Bayne, third fastest in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford at 185.445 m.p.h. and Paul Menard in his first outing in the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet at 185.422 m.p.h.

Fifth fastest on Sunday was Clint Bowyer in the No. 33 RCR Chevrolet at 185.223 m.p.h.

Five-time champion Johnson was 15th fastest at 184.687 m.p.h in the No. 48 HMS Chevrolet.

EARNHARDT TRIBUTE

NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway will honour the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death by asking fans at Sunday’s Daytona 500 for a moment of silence on the third lap.

“We felt the appropriate way to honour Dale Earnhardt was in the actual racing,” track president Joie Chitwood said in a statement. “The best way to appreciate the things Dale did — he was about racing — and how we respect him should be on the track. That to us was a real racing tribute and more appropriate than anything we could have done in the pre-race show.”

Fans will also be asked to stand and raise three fingers on that lap.

FINISH LINES

Can’t figure out how Milka Duno went from being nothing more than a moving chicane in the IZOD INDYCAR series to an impressive first stock race in the ARCA Series Lucas Oil Mist 200 at Daytona International Speedway. Except for being caught up in somebody’s else’s mistake — hello Canada’s Steve Arpin — Duno had a top 10 finish in sight with just 17 top go before her crash. ... In another surprise Sunday Rubens Barrichello took Williams to the top of the time sheets on the final day of this week’s Formula One test in Jerez, Spain, setting the fastest lap at one minute, 19.832 seconds. Second fastest was Kamui Kobayashi in a Sauber-Ferrari at 1:20.601, with Fernando Alonso third quickest for Ferrari at 1:21.074.

nascar sprint cup

In the first real test of Daytona International Speedway’s new surface for NASCAR Sprint Cup cars Kurt Busch finished second but got credit for the Budweiser Shootout win Saturday night when Denny Hamlin was ruled out of bounds in the last pass of the race.

It was Busch’s first win after finishing second seven times on Daytona’s 2.5-mile high banked tri-oval. It was also Busch’s first restrictor plate win of any kind at either Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway.

Busch was pushed to the victory by defending Daytona 500 champion Jamie McMurray, who finished second.

Hamlin was relegated to 12th place for passing below the yellow line coming to the checkered flag.

Ryan Newman rounded out the top three.

“To experience victory lane here, no matter what the race is, is very special,” said Busch. “I just have to thank Jamie McMurray; he stuck with us.”

ARCA series

Bobby Gerhart may not have had the fastest car, but his No. 5 Lucas Oil Chevrolet had the best fuel mileage in Saturday’s Lucas Oil Slick Mist ARCA 200 at Daytona International Speedway.

In race that is normally a showcase for young and up-and-comers in the stock car racing world the 53-year-old series veteran from Pennsylvania captured his seventh career win at Daytona.

“We really took a gamble (on fuel),” Gerhart said after beating Chris Buescher in the Roulo Brothers Racing Ford No. 17 to the finish line.

Finishing in third was the No. 32 Red Line Oil Toyota, driven by Matt Merrell. In fourth and fifth place were Ricky Carmichael in the No. 4 Monster Energy Chevrolet and Jason Bowles, in the No. 6 Eddie Sharp Racing Toyota.

Canada’s two best hopes in the race — Steve Arpin and Maryeve Dufault — were caught up in a big wreck on lap 63.

“The only thing I saw was smoke and I saw bouncing cars all over the place,” Dufault said.


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