Five things we learned during a long, rainy night of racing at Daytona:
1. Kevin Harvick is concerned about one thing: Bonus points. In the days leading up to Saturday night's Coke Zero 400, Harvick had several meetings with his owner Richard Childress, his crew chief Gil Martin, and other members of his RCR team. The topic of discussion was the same in each one: How do we start winning races?
Though he's been leading the points for nearly the entire season, Harvick was growing increasingly nervous. Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson each have five victories in 2010, which means they already have 50 points (ten for each W) that will carry into the Chase. Harvick had one win. "It's time to be aggressive," Harvick said.
And so he was on Saturday night. Piloting one of the dominant cars in the field, Harvick stayed in the lead pack for most of the 400 miles and then pulled away from his RCR teammate Clint Bowyer to win his second race of the season. Harvick has such a commanding lead in the standings -- he's 212 points ahead of Jeff Gordon -- that over the final eight races of the regular season he can gamble on the track while Martin can take chances with the setup of the No. 29 Chevy. These are biggest benefits of being atop the standings.
Can Harvick win another race or two before the Chase starts on Sept. 19 in Loudon, N.H.? It seems likely, especially the team's his win-or-wreck approach.
2. The Daytona pavement went out in style. The asphalt surface at the NASCAR's most hallowed track has been the subject of much discussion in recent months. Back in February during the Daytona 500 a pothole developed in surface, which was laid in 1978, and caused an embarrassing delay of 2 hours and 42 minutes -- about the same time it took to complete the entire race at Michigan International Speedway in June.
After that debacle, the powers at the Speedway announced an ambitious, $20 million project to repave the track that will start on Tuesday. About 100 workers will pour more than 50,000 tons of concrete onto the track, which will smooth it out and give the cars better grip. Some drivers such as Tony Stewart grew so nostalgic this week about this old surface that you'd have thought they were talking about the impending passing of an old friend, the way they carried on about wanting to take a chunk of the track home.
On Saturday night in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400, fittingly, the bumpy old surface -- the bumpiest in NASCAR, for the record -- produced another race full of chaos. There were a record 18 leaders, 47 lead changes, and a massive 20-car pileup. For racing junkies, this was arresting theatre, even if it didn't end until the small hours of Sunday morning. Definitely a good way for the old surface to go out.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has turned a corner. On Saturday afternoon I had a lengthy chat with Rick Hendrick. As he sat in the cool of his expansive motor coach that was parked in the Daytona infield, Hendrick reflected on how far Earnhardt has come in the last two months. "What you're now seeing is Dale's confidence growing each week," Hendrick said. "He's as dedicated as I've seen him, and I'm not just saying that because he on our team. He's done everything that Lance [McGrew, his crew chief] has asked of him and more. And now Lance and Dale are comfortable with each other. They trust each other. Their chemistry is good, and it's showing up in the results."
"Dale is the kind of driver that, when things aren't going well, you need to put your arm around him, not slap him. That's what we did, and now he's as confident as any driver out there."
Earnhardt authored another strong race on Saturday night. A day after winning the Nationwide event at Daytona -- his first victory in the Triple-A of NASCAR since 2006 -- Earnhardt finished fourth in the Coke Zero 400. He's now had four straight top 11 finishes, which translates into his best stretch of racing in over two years, and over the last six races he's climbed from 16th to 11th in the standings.
To find out more about Earnhardt's renaissance, check out my story in the magazine this week.
4. Bobby Labonte's career is winding down. Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion, achieved a milestone at Daytona: he made his 600th career start, which ranks 20th on the alltime starts list. Ever since Labonte left Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006, his career has sputtered. Since then he has zero wins and only four top-5 finishes. Driving for owner Kevin Buckler this season, Labonte, 47, had his first top-20 finish on Saturday, motoring across the finish line in 17th. Still, his days in the Cup series clearly are numbered.
I'll always remember Labonte for an answer to a question of mine back in 2000. Late that fall SI dispatched me to Atlanta Motor Speedway to do a feature on Labonte and his championship-winning season. After chatting for about 10 minutes in the back of his hauler, I asked Labonte, who's as taciturn as they come in NASCAR, what he liked to do in his free time. With a straight face followed by probably 30 seconds of silence, he replied, "I like to take long sh--s and read the newspaper."
Needless to say, the interview soon ended. But that line remains high on my alltime quote list.
5. Changes to the Chase are a-coming. On Friday NASCAR chairman Brian France met with reporters for about 30 minutes. The most interesting nugget he tossed out was that NASCAR is strongly considering changing the Chase format in 2011. "The Chase is an evolution," France said. "So we'll weak that just like other sports leagues. You saw the NCAA tournament take a hard look at how many teams to add into their tournament and had a big idea, ad then they ended up adding a few teams. There are lots of things that we'll look at."
One change that seems to be gaining support in the garage would be to make the Chase an elimination-style format. Under one scenario, 15 drivers would make the 10-race playoff. After two races, the field would be trimmed to 10. After three more races, the field would be cut to five. After two more, the field would shrink to three drivers, who would then battle for the championship over the last three races. I personally like this idea, because it would create more tension -- and hence more drama -- throughout the Chase.
One other idea that's being thrown around is to include a road-course event in the 10-race playoff. If these are truly the best drivers in the world, which is what NASCAR continually pronounces, then the ability to turn right and left should be included when determining a champion. Will this happen? I still doubt it, but it would be nice to see Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International on the Chase schedule. Put simply, it doesn't make sense to have two road races in the regular season and none in the Chase.