The Daytona 500 is called the Super Bowl of stock car racing, and yes, it is NASCAR's foremost event. But there's one thing wrong with the Super Bowl analogy. It's backward.
The Daytona 500 is the first Winston Cup race of the season, not the last. Unlike the Super Bowl, it decides nothing, other than identifying the points leader entering the second race of the season, at Rockingham.
There's a major schedule realignment coming in 2004. With that in mind, Bill France Jr. should use the opportunity to make NASCAR's biggest race an even more significant event. Make it the season finale, not the season opener.
Don't talk about tradition. The Daytona 500 hasn't always been the first points race on the schedule. For instance, it was Grand National Race No. 8 in the 1964 season. As late as 1981, the road course at Riverside was the site of the season opener.
With the Daytona 500 as the season's final race, the excitement would be multiplied. Feel the anticipation as the Winston Cup title hinges on the closing laps. Picture a 30-car freight train hurtling around Daytona's high banks at nearly 200 mph. Imagine drivers, wondering whether the inevitable big wreck will swallow them, in an all-out sprint to the checkered flag with the championship on the line.
Now contrast that image to the 2002 season finale at Homestead, a snoozer of a race if there ever was one. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with Homestead, but it's not a site suitable for deciding the championship. My guess is that alligators and water moccasins outnumber race fans in the Homestead area, which is south of Miami.
Tony Stewart was confident last season when he took the points lead to Homestead, a 1.5-mile track that is nearly flat and not conducive to passing or exciting racing. Needing a midpack finish to secure the title, he knew that nothing out of the ordinary was likely to happen. But at Daytona, with plenty of room to race and speeds that require restrictor plates, all hell can break loose at any moment.
As the first race of the 2002 season, how important was the Daytona 500 in determining the Winston Cup championship? Not at all. Stewart, in fact, was the first driver out of the race. He spent the rest of the season making up for his 43rd-place finish in the opener. The Daytona 500 winner, Ward Burton, dropped like a rock to a 25th-place points finish.
Jeff Gordon, who won his fourth championship in 2001, finished 30th in the 500. Michael Waltrip, who won the race, finished 24th in points. There are many more examples.
The Winston Cup season still can begin with Speedweeks at Daytona, but let's do it with the Budweiser Shootout followed a week later by the Pepsi 400. The Shootout gets the party started. It's a tease of what's to come. And moving the Pepsi 400 from early July, when the heat can be oppressive, to more comfortable February would be a favor to the fans.
There still would be plenty of incentive for a team to excel in the season opener. Racing at Daytona always is memorable. In addition, teams could use the 400 to gather information that would benefit them in the other restrictor-plate races.
The July date would be better suited to a northern city, such as Chicago, which could give the race more fanfare by linking it with July 4 celebrations. Even Atlanta, under the lights, during that weekend would be tolerable, and its officials would jump at the chance because of iffy weather for the track's current dates in early March and late October.
The July date also would work in Seattle. Winston Cup racing hasn't reached into the Northwest, and it is a natural target for expansion. Furthermore, there's no need to race in Florida in the middle of summer. We don't go to Phoenix or Las Vegas in August, do we?
If the season started at Daytona with the Pepsi 400, Homestead could be the second race of the season. That would allow snowbirds and Southeastern race fans to spend three weeks in Florida, migrating from one track to the other. There's no need to race at Rockingham in February, when snow can threaten a race.
Don't overlook spring training. Keeping the racing in Florida might attract some baseball fans who travel to watch their teams train.
Mr. France, before kicking your "Realignment 2004" plan into high gear, give it some thought. It's time to reconstruct the calendar, and that reconstruction should begin in your own back yard.
If the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of stock car racing, let's move it to its proper place: season's end.
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