Junior's late Daytona run has NASCAR crossing its fingers
A resurgent Dal Earnhardt Jr. this season could be lucrative for NASCAR
With Petty input, Roush team grabbed three top-10 finishes at Daytona
Strong history at track makes Carl Edwards the favorite heading to Fontana
SI.com's Cory McCartney takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.
We can't begin to imagine just how much it would mean to NASCAR to have Dale Earnhardt Jr. be relevant again. For CEO Brian France, who has called Junior "the franchise," it's a marketing dream, the sport's equivalent to when the Lakers and Celtics renewed their historic rivalry in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Crown Prince of NASCAR, he of the No. 4 ranking in Forbes' list of sports' biggest earners, being a force on the track instead of just the Most Popular Driver voting (he's won seven straight) leads to bigger attendance, high TV ratings, and ultimately, more advertising dollars.
But as much as watching Junior charge from 10th to second on the final green-white-checkered finish evoked a gutsy, reckless abandonment reserved for weaving your way through traffic in Grand Theft Auto, it shouldn't be enough to fully claim that Little E is back to his 2003-04 form. Overall, he had an unquestionably great Speedweeks, as he claimed the outside pole for the 500 and finished second in the race, but can we just leave it at that? The Daytona showing was clearly what Rick Hendrick wanted as he aligned the No. 88 team with Mark Martin's crew after a putrid '09 season and this is surely a confidence-builder, but saying Junior has signaled a turnaround after a restrictor-plate race, where he has 15 career top-fives and seven wins, is like watching four-time champ Jimmie Johnson's DNF in the opener and saying his season is officially over.
Along with America being swept up in Danicamania, there really isn't a more alluring storyline for the sport than having Dale Jr. in Victory Lane (which is a sad indictment of fans' feelings for J.J.'s dominance) ... but let's take a deep breath until after Fontana, where he has an average finish of 22.1, Las Vegas (17.8 average) and Atlanta (one top five in the last six races). If he's still running as well as he did at Daytona in four weeks, then it will be time to start supplying members of Junior Nation with paper bags to breathe into to control their convulsing. I'm buying.
As long as we're on the topic of sweeping generalizations from Daytona, here's one: Jack Roush and Richard Petty had to have left Daytona Beach as two men exultant in their team's new marriage.
The sharing of technology between Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports delivered Roush three top 10s with Greg Biffle (third), Matt Kenseth (eight) and Carl Edwards (ninth), not to mention David Ragan, who led two laps but finished 16th, meanwhile Petty's A.J. Allmendinger and Elliott Sadler combined to lead 20 laps, and Kasey Kahne won one of the Duels. It's a collective performance made all the more impressive when you consider teams weren't allowed to test at NASCAR tracks during the offseason.
As much as this was a boon for RPM, which has looked like a complete mess of late and could still lose the free-agent to be Kahne regardless of what happens this season, it's an even bigger boost for Roush Fenway. It won the first two races last year with Kenseth, only to fade as it found Victory Lane once more with a driver who's no longer on team in 500 winner Jamie McMurray. The intermediate tracks like Fontana, Las Vegas and Atlanta have been the bread and butter for Roush Fenway's teams and this alliance appears to have made RFR's big three all the more dangerous across the board. It's too early to say if Roush Fenway is ready to go head-to-head with Hendrick, but it's clearly a positive start.
1: McMurray's career Cup wins away from restrictor-plate tracks
12: Average finish of Daytona 500 winner at Fontana since the race was moved up in the schedule
24.4: McMurray's average finish in his last seven races at Auto Club Speedway
Now that the Great American Event is in the books, it's time for our first true test of the 2010 season. The safe pick would be Johnson, who has won three of the last six trips to L.A. and has finished no worse than ninth in that span. But I'm going with Edwards, whose average finish of 6.6 in 10 starts at the track is second only to J.J.'s 5.8 In 11 starts, Edwards has 10 finishes of seventh or better, including a win in '08. For a driver badly in need of a return to Victory Lane after last season's debacle, Fontana is the perfect remedy.
Before the Daytona 500, the title of Best Known Pothole clearly belonged to the one from the GEICO commercials with its feminine Southern twang and apologetic nature, but now that designation resides with the one that led to two red-flag delays that totaled 2 hours, 24 minutes. So how does the GEICO pothole feel about losing her crown? Luckily, she's all too willing to sound off on her cousin "Sue Ellen," stealing the spotlight and lets us in on the fact that the bane of the 500 has always "been a bit of a troublemaker."