DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Cars were running at Daytona International Speedway with the race red-flagged Sunday.
Just not on the track.
During two long delays to repair a pothole in the pavement at the Daytona 500, the real action was in the parking lot. Many in attendance bolted before the race was over, while other frustrated fans stayed behind.
“Everybody was disgusted,” said 54-year-old Craig Wood, who moved to the infield to watch after much of the grandstands filtered out.
Wood was debating how long he would stay. He was with friend Chet Boraski, 64, but was getting hit with continuous text messages from others poking fun at the long wait.
“Hey old timer, you’re going to have to take a nap to finish this race,” one read.
“Guess that stimulus money hasn’t come yet for Daytona,” another wrote.
Those who stuck around withstood temperatures dipping into the mid-40s. Some covered up with blankets and sweaters, others used the time to drink a little more beer and sing melodies.
The loudest cheer came after driver Carl Edwards was doing an interview over the track’s loudspeakers and proclaimed, “We need to go race.”
That would have to wait.
The drivers completed 36 laps on the repaired superspeedway following a delay of 1 hour, 40 minutes for the initial fix. The second delay lasted 44 minutes.
Rickie Davies, 31, was heading to meet friends in the parking lot to go home. He wasn’t in a hurry.
“What’s the rush?” he joked. “This thing might still be running when I get home.”
The 2 1/2 -mile, high-banked superspeedway was last paved in 1978 and is scheduled for a $20 million repaving in 2012. But officials said it could be moved up if necessary.
Penske cars exit early
Two of the three cars owned by Roger Penske crashed early, falling several laps behind after another pileup during a wreck-filled weekend.
A six-car accident on the seventh lap collected Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. The pair finished 36th and 37th, respectively. The accident began when Keselowski had a problem with a tire and lost control of his Dodge.
“I must have run over something with the right rear tire,” Keselowski said. “I blew a tire going into Turn 1 and the car just took off. The tire just exploded and took the right-rear quarter panel out. It’s a shame. You come here, work hard for two weeks trying to put a car together to do everything right, you study tapes, make all the right moves in the race and we only make six laps.”
Keselowski was 34 laps down when he returned to the track, and Hornish was 48 behind. Penske Racing still had Kurt Busch in the field, and he had led several times.
The accident also claimed Max Papis, Mike Bliss, Boris Said and Regan Smith.
Junior Johnson, the 1960 Daytona 500 winner who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his biggest victory, served as grand marshal and recalled the early origins of drafting at NASCAR’s famed track.
Johnson is credited with helping discover the advantage of having two or more cars racing together versus racing alone. It helped him to his only Daytona 500 win.
“Basically, I stole the race,” Johnson said. “I didn’t win it.”
Johnson was about 15 mph slower than some of the new cars and was “about to go home” because his year-old Chevrolet was “disgusting.” But he figured out in the final Daytona 500 practice that his car came to life when he “ducked in behind” Jack Smith.
So Johnson decided to stick around. His strategy?
“Grab people all day long and ride behind them,” he said.
Still, he never thought he would win. But after many of the top cars fell back or dropped out of the race, it left him, Bobby Johns, Richard Petty and Lee Petty as the only ones on the lead lap. Johnson ended up winning by 23 seconds.
“When I figured the (draft) out, I did not know what it was,” he said.
Nowadays, drafting – tailgating the car in front of you to avoid wind resistance – is one of the most important strategies in Daytona races.