Hendrick picks up at Daytona where it left off
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – The NASCAR scoring tower never seems to change. A Hendrick Motorsports sweep, 1-2-3.
That’s how NASCAR’s top team ended last season, and exactly how they opened the first practice of this year.
And when the flag waves on Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500, three Hendrick cars will lead the field in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Mark Martin, the 51-year-old throwback, will start from the pole in an attempt to snap an 0-for-25 Daytona 500 streak. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the rock star suffering through a confidence-testing slump, shares the front row with his teammate.
Right behind them is Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion who has given no indication he’ll relax his run of NASCAR domination anytime soon.
So forgive the rest of the field if they’ve had just about enough of the Hendrick camp.
“I think about that sometimes. I think everybody probably does,” said Kasey Kahne, who wedged his Richard Petty Motorsports entry alongside Johnson in the second row to crash the Hendrick party.
“We got down here and the first practice it was 1-2-3-4 or something like that with the Hendrick cars. We’re always chasing them it seems like, but I feel like I’m in the best position I’ve been in in a while, as far as this race, to have a shot to race with those guys and actually beat some of them.”
A new year, but the goal remains the same across the garage: Figure out how to beat the Hendrick guys.
There’s no better stage, either, than Daytona International Speedway and the biggest race of the season. The 52nd running of the Great American Race comes at a critical time for NASCAR, which launched a series of rapid-fire changes designed to add some much-needed energy to a sport that had seemingly hit its plateau.
NASCAR wants its drivers to shed the sponsor-shilling stereotype and show more raw emotion. The sanctioning body is willing to do its part, too, agreeing to lighten up its restrictions on on-track aggression. The relaxed policing is referred to around NASCAR as the “Boys, have at it” policy, and has generated considerable buzz for the sport.
The key to capitalizing still lies in staging a successful show on Sunday, and NASCAR is keenly aware of the opportunity to show a wide audience that the sport has turned a corner and is headed back in the right direction.
Doing so means rules are still being tinkered with in the days leading into the race. When last week’s exhibition Budweiser Shootout fell flat because the race ended under caution – meaning the field was frozen one lap from the finish, and winner Kevin Harvick coasted toward the checkered flag unchallenged – series officials acted quickly to create a new procedure.
In Sunday’s race, NASCAR will now make up to three attempts to finish under green should a caution be called before the final lap.
“Me personally, as a fan, I would’ve thought that the (Shootout) finish was not that great,” said Denny Hamlin, a driver who has found his voice over the past several months when it comes to NASCAR issues.
“They can’t change the rule right in the middle of the race. But they’re doing everything they can to make everyone happy and make sure we have good finishes. It’s just another step in the right direction.”
The industry already received a huge boost from Danica Patrick, who has upstaged Speedweeks with her shift into NASCAR. Although she’s not racing the Daytona 500, her participation in lower level events has reinforced the fact that a successful superstar can invigorate the series.
That’s got to come, though, from Earnhardt Jr.
Just like NASCAR, he heads into 2010 at a critical juncture of his career. Mired in a horrendous slump that has tested his mental strength, team owner Rick Hendrick made rebuilding that No. 88 team the organization’s top priority. How much they’ve accomplished will be on display at Daytona, where Earnhardt is considering one of the best racers. He’s got two Cup victories at Daytona over his career, including the 2004 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt wants another Daytona win, and to get on pace with his successful Hendrick teammates. No matter how bad things were last season, racing is still the only thing he wants to do.
“There’s nothing else I really want to do. There’s no other place that I want to be,” he said. “Everything is frustrating. Every job gets frustrating at times. But I would be a complete fool not to want to come back every year and keep trying at least to turn around last year or the year before, outdo the past season, no matter how good or bad it was.”