Column: Hype, new format didn't equal must-watch Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) The Daytona 500 was sold out, the grid packed with celebrities, the fan area full of activities including a motorcycle ''Ball of Death.''

Owen ''Lightning McQueen'' Wilson was on hand, and so was Waka Flocka Flame , Gronk and nearly two dozen women decked out in scantily-clad Monster Energy outfits.

One thing NASCAR had for its season opener was a much-needed spark and an atmosphere worthy of the hype associated with its biggest race.

But for all the buzzwords - NASCAR is edgy! - star power and a Monster-fueled fervor that made the race a hot ticket, it couldn't hide the one thing that still continues to tug at the heart of the sport.

The racing.

The sport's leaders had worked so hard to make a splash and push the message that this was a new NASCAR. Even the drivers could feel it.

''The whole week was a lot of fun. All the media. All the buildup. The sellout,'' said NASCAR's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ''Felt like it was a new beginning of sorts in some way for the sport. It seemed like there was a new energy. I don't know what it was. I couldn't really put my finger on it, but it just felt good.''

Right up until go time.

NASCAR revamped the rules that turned races into segments - three, like periods in the NHL - designed to keep fans engaged from the drop of the green flag. But a series of wrecks wiped out contenders like Earnhardt and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and others, and there were lengthy red flag delays. The top 10 became loaded with drivers more familiar with the back of the pack and all that energy faded away.

Gronk can't save them every week, either.

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski almost overshadowed race winner Kurt Busch . Both are sponsored by Monster, NASCAR's new title sponsor, but it was Gronk who was out until 5:30 a.m. Monday following NASCAR's version of the Super Bowl.

The biggest race of the year was far from NASCAR's best and the new format fell a little flat from the promised amazingness drivers insisted it will deliver. It wasn't a dud, but it's impossible to know after one crash-filled weekend if it's any good.

It was wreck after wreck after wreck on Sunday, and almost all the top names were taken out early. It meant Canadian driver D.J. Kennington's debut in the Daytona 500 produced a better finish than Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth, both two-time Daytona 500 winners, and former series champion Kyle Busch.

Cole Whitt was at one point the race leader, and before Busch stole the victory, it appeared the win could go to either Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson or Ryan Blaney - a trio with an average age of 22 and one win in a combined 209 starts.

That Busch led just one lap, the last one, was fitting for this race. It was the first time in 59 years that the winner led only the final lap.

It's hard to know why so many drivers struggled, or if racing in stages produced the problems. The aggression on the track could be attributed to anxious drivers running their first real race following the offseason. It could be that the back half of the grid just isn't that talented. Consider: This Daytona 500 lacked Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, featured rookies Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones and the debuts for Kennington, Corey LaJoie, Joey Gase and Jeffery Earnhardt.

AJ Allmendinger finished third and thought the stages made a difference.

''It seemed like you get five laps to go in the stage, everything would kind of amp back up,'' Allmendinger said. ''Everybody just gets three-wide now. It's hard to make any moves happen. You have to get your track position. If you lose it, it's hard to get it back.

''Over the last couple years, it's kind of hard to make moves through the middle of the pack through the field with 20 to go. Everybody was trying to get up there and make sure they got the track position. That's what happens here.''

Blaney, give him credit, tried to win in a backup car and didn't shy away from pulling out of line to try to make a run at the win.

''I tried to make a move with 10 (laps) to go to see what would happen. No one really went with me,'' runner-up Blaney said.

Elliott ran out of fuel. So did Larson. Same with Martin Truex Jr. And so Kurt Busch won, then Monster threw a rager to celebrate. For the cut-rate price the company is paying for naming rights - reportedly about $20 million a year - it likely recouped its initial investment on opening day based on publicity alone.

In the end, the television rating was up, the mood was mostly upbeat and Monster was as proud of Busch's victory as it was of Gronk's all-nighter. At Busch's Monday winner's breakfast, Monster vice president of sports marketing Mitch Covington noted that Gronk had put in a 24-hour shift for the company.

That a hard-partying NFL player could steal thunder from the Daytona 500 winner is a problem NASCAR has to address. The big names are getting old, and the sport is going to be in desperate need of some superstars very soon.

And if NASCAR intends to be the rock star that Monster can create, it's going to need far better racing that it got at Daytona.

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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