The 55th running of the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s very own Super Bowl, and the first race with a woman starting at the pole. It should have been a week for NASCAR to bask in the glory of its biggest event. It finally had a driver in Danica Patrick who represents a demographic NASCAR so desperately wishes to reach every race day. It seemed like it was going to be the storybook version of the Daytona 500. Patrick had qualified for the pole and was starting the race along side NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon. They were rolling out the Generation 6, which was meant to replace the very unpopular “Car of Tomorrow” or Gen 5. It was building up to be the perfect weekend for auto racing.
However, NASCAR’s dream week would very quickly become a nightmare. The Nationwide race on Saturday was going well, until the final lap. Starting in the final turn, driver Kyle Larson was racing for the finish line. But drivers at the front of the pack started jostling for position and Larson was pushed into two cars. After making contact his car careened into the safety fence right in front of the grandstands. Spectators described how the car seemed to explode when it hit the fence. 33 were injured after debris flew into the stands, and 14 of those 33, with more severe injuries, were taken to a local hospital. NASCAR had a very real disaster on its hands. This was not a simple wreck with drivers shaken but okay, with a rattled driver being interviewed saying the typical, “It was scary, but I’m fine. NASCAR has done a lot to improve safety and I’m glad to be okay.” It was an accident where fans became involved. There were pictures and video of fans screaming and crying as the smoke cleared. ESPN and other networks were carrying stories of fans who protected their children, spouses, or simply each other from the accident’s debris. It was a very public example of the dangers of NASCAR. But this time, the focus was on the fans, and not the drivers.
NASCAR’s upper management went into overdrive to try and reign in speculation on fan safety. Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood said, “We’re in the process of repairing the facility and will be ready to go racing tomorrow.” NASCAR said none of the fans would be moved from regular seating and the facility was being repaired for the race on Sunday. Driver Tony Stewart had won the Nationwide race and suddenly was not a subject of the story. What should have been video of Stewart, who is one of NASCAR’s most recognizable drivers, celebrating in victory lane transformed into fans screaming for help and being loaded into ambulances. NASCAR’s only hope at salvation was a good race on Sunday.
Sunday’s Sprint Cup race did not deliver. The Generation 6 car was built up as a huge deal with FOX airing special after special. According to the drivers and NASCAR, the cars they drove on Sunday could be found in the showroom on Monday. Ford, Toyota, and Chevy had created a new generation of cars based on their more popular models. What did they do on Sunday? They created a racing situation in which passing was almost impossible, and a driver without a draft partner was suddenly left at the back. Patrick got off to a good start and stayed in the top 3 for most of the race but soon found herself finishing 8th. A top 10 finish yes, but not what NASCAR wanted. Jimmie Johnson went to the victory circle on Sunday in what can only be described as a less than exciting finish. His win even came with some controversy of its own. According to an article posted on AOL’s Sportingnews.com fans are accusing the driver of cheating. After his win on Sunday, Johnson strangely wrecked the front of his car when he drove into the infield grass. Fans claimed that he did this so NASCAR would be unable to fail the car during post-race inspection. He claims, “I just wanted to get a cool picture down on the Daytona emblem (in the grass).” Obviously, these claims cannot be proven and they probably will not turn into anything more serious right now. But it does lead to some speculation on Johnson’s credibility as a competitor.
It was the last thing NASCAR needed. A dangerous wreck, innocent fans injured, a somewhat boring race, and a driver’s integrity called into question, together they created a weekend NASCAR probably soon hopes to forget. Could NASCAR become the next sport to suffer a major controversy? Its 5-time champion in Jimmie Johnson has a crew chief that has been suspended by NASCAR three times (including a 2012 suspension which was repealed successfully) since 2006. All these suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus came while Johnson was making his 5-time championship run except for the 2012 investigation. Baseball has fallen to controversy in the last decade; the NCAA is in the process of destroying itself, and maybe NASCAR will be the next sport with a tainted champion. We’ll have to wait till the checkered flag waves on the Jimmy Johnson era.