One of the first things I learned about NASCAR fans nearly 30 years ago was that they donâ€™t tune in for the wrecks. NASCAR fans hate wrecks, actually. They want to see all of their favorite drivers jousting at high speeds on a breathless chase to the checkered flag. Wrecks just take time to clean up.
For those who stopped paying attention, NASCAR has arrived at the point of its too-long Cup season at which the full 16-driver field for the 10-race, season-closing playoffs is being determined. Because just six drivers shared the first 17 victories, a spot in the playoffs is assured to any winner of the last nine races to the cutoff.
So it was a nice development that Erik Jones, a 22-year-old from Michigan who is one of the sportâ€™s highly hyped â€śYoung Guns,â€ť ended up winning a 400-mile race Saturday that took three-plus hours at Daytona International Speedway. It was the first Cup victory for Jones. He is in the playoffs!
The rest of the night was not so great. For one, the Daytona Beach News Journal, doing the job that NASCAR used to do, estimated the crowd at 60,000, or 40,000 short of capacity. When the race was called the Firecracker 400 and run on the Fourth of July, the place was packed.
But NASCAR had an excellent chance to put on a good show on a Saturday night on NBC, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the microphone. Some 20 of 40 cars in the field wrecked out, though, and only 13 cars finished on the lead lap. The average green-flag run was 11 laps.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 30-year-old ex-boyfriend of Danica Patrick, won the first two stages of the race, but he was entangled in two wrecks that involved an astonishing 31 different cars, including his car and another car twice. Stenhouse was in a third wreck later, then spun out.
Stenhouse would tell reporters later that he needed a victory to get into the playoffs, â€śso it is what it is.â€ť Someone still thought it would be a good idea if Stenhouse were escorted from the racetrack to his trailer by two police officers to keep angry drivers or fans at bay.