Kenseth's baby on the way might be the break Wallace needs
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- So NASCAR's baby boom has struck another Daytona 500 and this time it involves 2003 Cup champion and 2009 Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.
Last year, it was Carl Edwards who had to split his attention between preparing for NASCAR's biggest race and getting the call from his wife, who was about to go into labor. Before him were the likes of Jimmie Johnson, Sam Hornish, Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
And behind every great NASCAR driver whose wife is about to give birth is a lesser-known driver in waiting, ready to get behind the wheel if the call finally comes. For Kenseth, that'll be Kenny Wallace, the highly-animated, mile-a-minute talker who is featured on Speed TV as one of its NASCAR experts. There are no plans to have Wallace compete on race day, but the 47-year-old younger brother of former Cup champion Rusty and Mike Wallace could get a chance to drive a Cup car at Daytona in practice and qualifications if Kenseth's wife goes into labor.
Wallace has had a less than stellar career in NASCAR. He hasn't competed in a Cup race since 2008, when he ran in just two of the 36 races on the schedule. In 344 Cup starts, dating back to 1990, he has no victories, just six top-5s and 27 top 10 finishes. He has won three Cup poles, the most recent in 2001.
Last year, Wallace competed in all 35 Nationwide Series races, but never cracked the top 10. His best finish was 11th at Talladega in the spring. He finished 19th in the standings and was outrun by his nephew, Rusty's son Steve, who finished 10th in the final tally.
Wallace has made 19 Cup starts at Daytona, never finishing in the top 10. His last Daytona 500 start was 2008 when he finished last in the 43-car field for Furniture Row Racing. His best Daytona finish was 11th in 1997.
By finishing fifth in the 2010 Cup standings, Kenseth is already guaranteed a starting position in the Daytona 500. And giving the vagaries of restrictor-plate racing, missing practice wouldn't set him back that much, if any. Holding on to the draft and being in the right place at the right time matters more than the driver behind the wheel at Daytona and NASCAR's three other restrictor plate races. Considering the 2.5-mile speedway was recently repaved, any car in the 43-car lineup has a chance to drive to the front.
As Mark Martin once said, at Daytona, a multiple-Cup champion can easily get passed by a driver struggling to crack the top 35 in the standings. It's all about the draft -- that huge, aerodynamic slipstream that will keep the starting lineup locked in a giant pack for most of the race. It's what makes the biggest race of the year, in some respects, a crap-shoot. It's more about luck than skill. It's about placement as much as purpose.
Take a look at the last five Daytona 500s, for example.
2010 -- Jamie McMurray literally comes from nowhere to score the biggest victory of his career. By leading the last two laps, it's the fewest laps led by a winning driver in Daytona 500 history. Even more telling than McMurray's victory was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove from 10th to second in the last two laps. David Reutimann was fifth and Martin Truex, Jr. sixth. Although Reutimann would drive to victory at Chicagoland Speedway later that season, his top-5 finish in the Daytona 500 was not a signal of a great season.
Oh, by the way, Kenseth was eighth and Edwards finished ninth. Edward's wife, Kate, gave birth on Feb. 24 -- 10 days after the 500.
2009 -- Kenseth won his only Daytona 500, defeating Kevin Harvick in a race shortened to 152 of the scheduled 200 laps because of rain. But drivers in the top 10 included A.J. Allmendinger, Elliott Sadler, David Ragan and Reed Sorenson. While Kenseth and Harvick are perennial Chase contenders, Allmendinger, Ragan and Sorenson have never been serious contenders for the championship, and Sadler has made the Chase once in his career.
Sadler isn't even in the Cup Series in 2011 as he stepped back to drive the Kevin Harvick Inc. car on the full NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule.
2008 -- Ryan Newman drove to his only Daytona 500 victory after getting a push from teammate Kurt Busch when both were at Penske Racing. Sorenson was fifth and Robby Gordon eighth, adding credence that at Daytona and Talladega, drivers who normally struggle can still have a chance to win.
2007 -- Kevin Harvick wins a controversial Daytona 500 when he edges past Mark Martin at the checkered flag in a race that probably should have gone yellow as a massive wreck took place behind them. Who could forget the sight of Clint Bowyer's car flipping upside-down in the grass? While Harvick proved to be a capable and legitimate winner of the Daytona 500, the top 10 included the likes of Mike Wallace (fourth), Ragan (fifth), David Gilliland (eighth) and Joe Nemechek (ninth). It gets even more obscure as David Stremme was 11th, J.J. Yeley 12th and Boris Said 14th.
2006 -- Jimmie Johnson wins his only Daytona 500 just one week after his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was ejected from the event for cheating. Even with Knaus watching the race back home, it didn't matter as Johnson's Chevrolet defeated Casey Mears. But hey, old-timers Ken Schrader and Dale Jarrett were able to finish ninth and 10th. The immortal Kevin Lepage led a lap.
That teams and drivers spend more time preparing for the Daytona 500 than for any other race is basically a function of an event that began in 1959. In order to separate it from other NASCAR races at the time and lure fans from the Great White North to the sunny, but often chilly, shores of North Florida, NASCAR created a confusing and convoluted system of time trials and qualifying races to determine the starting lineup. But when NASCAR guaranteed starting positions to the top 35 cars in points, that meant only four starting positions would be determined by the Thursday Gatorade Duels. The rest of the field is based on provisional starting positions reserved for former champions, etc.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from Kenseth's situation is that he's set to beat out two Roush Fenway teammates -- Greg Biffle and Edwards -- whose wives are also expected to give birth later this year. Edwards' wife, Kate, is expected to give birth in May while Biffle's wife, Nicole, is set to give birth in July. Gentlemen, start your lullabies.