Another drama-free Daytona 500 win for NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jim France was ecstatic in the garage ahead of the Daytona 500. The stands were full for the first time in two years as fans again scoured every inch of the field looking for a selfie or of a signing, and there was no threat of rain ruining NASCAR’s biggest race of the season.

There was no talk of NASCAR’s new car or new rules. No premonition before departure. The show was all that mattered.

“I keep looking up, so grateful that we finally have perfect weather,” the NASCAR president said. “It’s going to be a perfect day.”

And so it was for NASCAR, which completed its 64th edition of “The Great American Race” without a single hitch. The race went smoothly and without drama, the Next Gen car was as good as advertised and rookie Austin Cindric was another winner who handed Roger Penske a win on the owner’s 85th birthday. team.

The race marked a return to normalcy for NASCAR, which has found flexibility during the pandemic that has helped America’s top motorsports series navigate its way through two turbulent years. A willingness to adapt and break with its long traditions has helped stabilize NASCAR at the same time as it undergoes massive change.

Stoppages and warrants have forced NASCAR to race where it can in 2020, catalyst for the most significantly revised schedule in series history next season. Cover Bristol with dirt? Sure! Adding more on-road courses? Absoutely!

Taking a few risks encouraged NASCAR to think entirely outside of its comfort zone.

NASCAR built a temporary track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, then moved The Clash from Daytona International Speedway, its only home since its 1979 debut, to Los Angeles. The star-studded exhibition race earlier this month even included a half-time – unheard of in motorsport – with a six-minute set performed by Ice Cube.

The success of The Clash reinvigorated the industry ahead of the Daytona 500, which sold out well over a month in advance and had around 120,000 spectators on hand Sunday at the speedway grounds.

“If you ask the question how I think NASCAR is today and what we’re seeing, I think we’re on a great trajectory,” Penske said. “All the new fans we’ve had at the Coliseum, and definitely selling that place and the sponsorships and the sequels, I think that’s great.

NASCAR looked a lot different on Sunday than it did two years ago at the Daytona 500, when then-President Donald Trump descended on the speedway. Trump gave the order to start the engines, but his appearance turned the Daytona 500 into something more akin to a campaign rally.

Bubba Wallace that day was the only black driver in the Daytona 500 field, and that was still the case when he crossed the finish line second behind Cindric on Sunday. But the demographics within the sport have improved dramatically as NASCAR strives to expand its traditional audience.

Michael Jordan is now a team owner and was at the Daytona 500 for a second straight year. Jordan, who arrived from racing in Cleveland in time for Sunday night’s NBA celebration of his 75th season, is co-owner of 23XI Racing, and with Wallace as his driver, he marks the only pairing of a black owner and a black driver at NASCAR’s highest level.

Pitbull owns a stake in Trackhouse Racing, which offers a car to Mexican driver Daniel Suarez, and the team recently welcomed UFC President Dana White to its ownership group.

But in addition to Jordan’s cars, the Daytona 500 featured two new teams run by black owners. Money Team Racing, owned by boxing great Floyd Mayweather Jr., made its NASCAR debut with a 26th-place finish from Kaz Grala.

NY Racing, run by black entrepreneur John Cohen, also got its car in the Daytona 500. Jacques Villeneuve, the former Formula 1 champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, also helped put a new European team on the ground.

The sun shone on all of them, and perhaps the new direction that NASCAR needed for years, if not decades, is here. Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back and Fox Sports analyst Charles Woodson was in Daytona as the official grand marshal and brought his young son and three of his friends along to check out the spectacle.

He noted that NASCAR’s enhanced diversity efforts had opened up options for black ownership, and when asked if he would consider getting formally involved with NASCAR, Woodson joked, “Don’t threaten me with spending a good time, I certainly wouldn’t mind exploring it. ”

As he soaked up the sights, sounds and stage, Woodson acknowledged that NASCAR — one of the first major sports to resume competition at the start of the pandemic and the first to complete its entire 2020 season — is back at full speed.

“People have been ready for a long time,” said Woodson, an Orlando resident. “You can just see and feel the energy of the fans on the track. I think we’re ready for this type of event and we can get back to doing what we love to do: go out and watch sports.”


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