By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
It’s no real secret that NASCAR has lost some of its spark in the 10 years since Dale Earnhardt, its biggest star, died in a crash during the Daytona 500. TV ratings have dropped along with at-track attendance. Some of the most disgruntled fans seem to be the old core audience, who long for the days when NASCAR was a Southern sport, racing at tracks in the South with drivers and teams from the South competing for wins each week. Now there are more Sprint Cup drivers from California than from any state in the South.
But after Sunday’s Daytona 500, the old core crowd ought to be happy.
For starters, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a North Carolina native, won the pole for the 500 and was a contender for a time.
Then, as the laps wound down in the 53rd running of the Great American Race, two sons of the South were running first and second, and the second-place car belonged to the iconic Wood Brothers, who once dominated the superspeedways but hadn’t won a race since 2001.
Unadilla, Ga.’s David Ragan, driving for Roush Fenway Racing, had the lead, and Knoxville, Tenn.’s Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 the day before and was running in just his second Sprint Cup race ever, trailed him in the Wood Brothers Ford, which was painted in the same scheme as the Mercury that the legendary South Carolinian David Pearson drove for the Woods back in the 1970s.
Ragan dropped out of contention after he was penalized for changing lanes too soon on a restart, leaving his one-time drafting partner Bayne to fend for himself in a green-white-checkered-flag dash to the finish.
But Bayne got a mighty drafting push from veteran Bobby Labonte, a Texan, who was in contention for the win for the first time in quite a while, and held the lead as the leaders took the white flag.
Then Carl Edwards closed in and gave Bayne just enough of a push to send the youngster and his 61-year-old race team to Victory Lane in NASCAR’s biggest race of the year.
And for the sentimental fans in the crowd, there was nothing more heartwarming than to see Glen Wood, the 85-year-old patriarch of the Wood Brothers race team, being escorted to Victory Lane by none other than his team’s one-time rival Richard Petty.
“I walked in Victory Lane with Richard Petty and Edsel Ford and my dad,” said Eddie Wood, Glen Wood’s son and one of the current co-owners of the team. “I don’t know how much better that can get.”
With his victory, Bayne joins A.J. Foyt, Cale Yarborough, Tiny Lund and David Pearson as drivers who have won the Daytona 500 in the Woods’ No. 21 car. But his win is the first in the 500 for the Woods since Pearson’s victory in 1976, which was 15 years before Bayne was born. And he seemed humbled to be a part of such an elite group of drivers.
“That’s a cool list,” he said. “It’s incredible to be a part of this group, it really is.”
But he wasn’t just looking back.
“To be added to that list, period, is crazy, especially at our first attempt,” he said. “That’s just insane. It sets the bar for this team. We don’t expect to win them all, but we know we can now, that’s for sure.”
For Ragan, who recovered to finish 14th after serving his penalty, the setback was tough to take. And he said he’s not convinced he broke any rules.
“I know what the rules are,” he said. “I felt like the leader had the start of the race. I felt like we fired, and I started to move down right before the start-finish line, but I don’t think I crossed that invisible line that separates the top and the bottom …
“It’ll take us a long time to forget this one, but we’ll move on to Phoenix, and the sooner we can win one, the sooner we can forget it.”
And he pointed out that without Bayne pushing him, he wouldn’t have been in the lead to start with. “Trevor did a great job,” he said.
Veteran Terry Labonte, who wound up one spot behind Ragan, summed up the feelings of many in NASCAR with his comments about the Wood Brothers and their big win. “I’m so happy for those guys,” he said. “That’s just a great family, and they’ve done so much for the sport. I sure am glad to see them in Victory Lane.”