COMMENTARY

Daytona needed Danica to win

After tragic crash, only Patrick could have salvaged race

The Orlando SentinelFebruary 25, 2013 

NASCAR Daytona 500 Auto Racing

Danica Patrick became the first woman Sunday to lead a lap in the Daytona 500. She led the race twice for five laps.

TERRY RENNA — AP

— JIMMIE JOHNSON MIGHT go down as the greatest stock-car driver to ever zip up a fire suit.

He is the only driver in history to win five straight championships.

He became the 10th driver in history Sunday to win multiple Daytona 500s.

He is the most dominant dynasty in American sports.

He is Tiger Woods in his heyday — without the porn stars and pancake waitresses.

Sadly, though, Johnson’s victory Sunday in the Great American Race was more like the Great American Bummer. Yet another victory in the Dulltona 500 by this classy, unassuming superstar is exactly what NASCAR didn’t need.

More than ever, in the wake of Saturday’s ghastly crash that injured dozens of fans in the Nationwide race, NASCAR desperately needed this to be the Danica 500. Nothing against Johnson, but a historic victory by the GoDaddy girl — Danica Patrick — is the only thing that could have helped put a happy face on an otherwise horrific weekend.

Make no mistake about it, the lingering effects of Saturday’s wreck were omnipresent leading up to Sunday’s 500. When two-ton racing missiles go airborne and spew engines, tires and other debris through the barrier fence protecting the crowd, everything else pales in comparison. As much as NASCAR has done in the past to secure the safety of its fans, it became abundantly clear Saturday that more must be done.

NASCAR officials spent the morning of the Daytona 500 holding news conferences and trying to explain how and why fans could have their lives endangered at the most famous race track in the sport. Some national radio hosts questioned whether the Daytona 500 should have been run Sunday and wondered if the fans would be safe behind the restraining fence track workmen rushed to repair in preparation for the Great American Race.

Even the drivers in the Daytona 500 said something didn’t feel quite right about the race on Sunday.

“I had a sick feeling about what happened yesterday,” said veteran Mark Martin, who finished third in Sunday’s 500. “That’s something we cannot have happen. It was sad to see some of our fans get injured.”

Only a Danica victory could have saved a Daytona 500 that has been cursed in recent years by rain delays, potholes in the asphalt and exploding jet dryers. If Danica had won, she would have become THE story of weekend. Any other winner — with the possible exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and this week will be remembered for injured fans being hauled away on stretchers.

Not that Danica disappointed. She did become the first woman to ever win a pole at the highest level of NASCAR and the first woman to lead a lap at the Daytona 500. She ran with the big dogs all day, was in the top three on the final lap and finished a respectable eighth.

“She’s going to make a lot of history all year long,” Dale Jr. said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress.”

Isn’t it strange that Johnson, perhaps the most underappreciated dynasty in the history of sports, is overshadowed by two drivers — Danica and Dale Jr. — who rarely win? Johnson wins championships like he’s in the SEC but gets the attention of Mountain West team.

Of course, what do you expect when the most interesting thing he had to say after his victory Sunday was a corporate plug for a home-improvement chain.

“Go to Lowe’s and buy some stuff,” Johnson urged. “Spring is coming!”

This Daytona 500 needed so much more than your typical NASCAR sponsor speak.

It needed something new and charismatic and exciting.

It needed something to make us forget the bloody fans and blaring ambulances.

It needed Danica in Victory Lane.


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