Chances are, when Ward Burton was a kid in South Boston, Va.,
dreaming of making a late-race pass to win the Daytona 500, the
car he pictured himself driving had its engine turned on. So
imagine his surprise on Sunday when he went to the front of the
field five laps from the finish of the Great American Race while
sitting on the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway, as
still as a gridlocked commuter on I-95, his engine shut off. A
few feet away Sterling Marlin, who had moments before beaten
Burton to the start-finish line on what looked to be the final
lap under the green flag, hopped from his car and tugged a piece
of sheet metal from his right front tire.
Such fender bending when the race is stopped is a NASCAR no-no,
and Marlin was penalized by being dropped to the tail end of the
lead lap. Now the lead was Burton's, and after the closing five
laps were finally run--the only laps Burton led all day--so was the
500, which was more a battle of attrition than a race. "We try to
be smart," Burton said after the race. "At the same time, like
[crew chief Tommy Baldwin] always says, we try to drive it like
we stole it."
Following the eighth caution of the day, it appeared the race
would be a six-lap shootout to the finish. However, as the
drivers took the green flag, Mark Martin, sitting in ninth place,
rear-ended Michael Waltrip, setting off a chain reaction. The
drivers in front of the wreck assumed the race would end under
the ensuing yellow flag, meaning that whoever got to the
start-finish line first on this lap would be the winner. With no
time to waste, Marlin tried to duck under leader Jeff Gordon in
Turn 1. Gordon dropped down to block him but clipped the front of
Marlin's car and spun himself out of contention.
That set up the mad dash to the line between Marlin and Burton,
who had been third. Marlin won the sprint by inches, but rather
than let the race end under caution NASCAR decided to throw the
red flag and have the cars stop on the backstretch until the
track was cleaned up. That meant the outcome would be determined
by real racing, which raised a problem for Marlin. When he'd
bumped Gordon he'd dented his right front fender, causing it to
rub against the tire. Racing with the car in that condition
would have been impossible, so Marlin--who had no option but try
to pull a fast one, because he would otherwise have had to
pit--got out and fixed it. "I saw [Dale] Earnhardt do it at
Richmond in 1987," Marlin said. "He got out and cleaned off his
windshield, so I thought it was O.K. I don't guess it was." No,
it wasn't. Burton took the lead by default and, with the
second-place car of Elliott Sadler not up to making a serious
run at him, held on to win one of the strangest Daytonas ever.
Burton's hometown of South Boston, Va., is known for the
fried-bologna burger. On the Monday before the race Sadler, who
grew up in nearby Emporia, was standing at a grill outside a Ford
hospitality tent on the Daytona infield, demonstrating how to
cook one of these culinary delights. After disclosing the secret
ingredient--"butter, and lots of it"--he discussed the proper
thickness of the bologna slice. "Just like the Fords. We want a
quarter of an inch."
Earlier that day, after much complaining from the Ford teams,
NASCAR had trimmed that amount from the height of the Fords' rear
spoilers in an effort to get them up to speed with the
Chevrolets, which had dominated practice for the 500. That
tinkering failed to get the intended result, though, so on
Friday--two days before the race--NASCAR again sliced the Ford
spoilers by the height of a bologna burger.
Some Chevy teams were less than pleased that they were seemingly
being punished for being fast. "I don't think NASCAR should have
helped Ford that much," said Chevy driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. as
he lounged on the steps of his hauler shortly after the first
reduction was announced. "It seems like you can work on your car
a little harder and maybe get a little more speed out of it.
It's disappointing that NASCAR would wait this late to make a
change. It's like, get your s--- together."
The changes played a significant role on race day. The Fords, and
to a lesser extent the Dodges, which also got a one-quarter-inch
reduction in their spoilers on Friday, kept pace with the Chevys,
given the reduced drag afforded by the lower spoilers. That, plus
the return to a tighter restrictor plate after last year's awful
high-speed crashes, meant the racing was as closely packed as
ever. The resulting constant bumping and blocking caused a series
of spinouts and pileups and served as a reminder of the dilemma
NASCAR faces in attempting to devise rules for superspeedways
that can keep its drivers safe while creating racing that its
fans enjoy. "Sliding across the infield at 160 mph with no brakes
and no right rear tire--that was cool," said Earnhardt, who had
two tires blow up on him during the race. "A lot of neat things
happened this weekend."
Nearly every car was dented or torn somewhere, and there wasn't
an unused roll of duct tape to be found. Drivers weren't afraid
to blame the measures put in place to keep them safe. "The cars
are going so slow," said Ricky Rudd, standing next to his mangled
Ford, which failed to complete the race. "It feels like you're
running about 60 miles an hour, so everybody feels like a hero
and takes a lot of chances. That's the biggest problem."
When drafting in closely bunched groups, drivers are seldom
passed by only one car. Open the door a crack and a whole line
of rivals will storm by. With the restrictor plates, getting
enough speed to catch up is tough. The easiest strategy is to
keep the cars behind you--no matter what the cost. "The downfall
of this restrictor-plate package is you've got to block," said
Daytona 500 rookie Kevin Harvick, "because if you get hung out,
you have to go to the back and start over again."
Harvick made that comment moments after being given a checkup at
the infield care center following a nasty crash that started
when he tried to block a hard-charging Gordon on Lap 149.
Eighteen cars were involved in the crash, which left flaming
vehicles and debris strewn all over the track. "It was a battle
of wrecks," said defending race champion Waltrip, who finished
fifth. "That's what you'll have in restrictor-plate races. We do
that a lot here. People get desperate at the end. I understand
that, because I was desperate too."
Daytona is known for having one large pileup each year. It's
called "the big one," and drivers speak of it with the same
mixture of dread and inevitability usually reserved for the
Thanksgiving visit by a least favorite aunt. This year she came
back for Christmas. Burton avoided both big ones, which put him
in position to win the fourth Winston Cup race of his nine-year
career. That total might be unspectacular, but Burton, 40, is one
of only nine drivers to have won both the Daytona 500 and the
prestigious Southern 500 in Darlington.
Burton can only hope that Daytona is as accurate a harbinger for
this season as it was for last. Despite leading the most laps at
Daytona in 2001, he got caught up in the collision that
triggered that race's big one and finished 35th. Things never
got better for Burton, who wound up 14th in the season
standings. This time he drove patiently and did his best to keep
his nose clean--no easy feat on a day in which only 30 of the
original 43 cars were running at the finish. The win earned him
$1.3 million, plus the recognition that comes with winning stock
car racing's biggest event. On Monday he left for a press junket
up north. "We're going to do what NASCAR wants us to do, but I
fit in better in the little hills in Virginia," the soft-spoken
Burton said. "We're going to New York. We'll try to fit in there."
So long as he doesn't saunter into Le Cirque and order a South
Boston bologna burger, he should be just fine.
at the end."