Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Daytona 500 2002

The 44th running of the Daytona 500 had all of the elements that have made NASCAR racing the premier motor sports attraction in the United States. It had the blend of racing, rubbin’, cautions, a rare red flag, lead changes, personality and goofiness that draws people to NASCAR racing.

I was walking through the infield during the beginning of the race, and heard a loud cheer. I figured that Dale Junior had taken the lead but to my surprise, it was because Tony Stewart was out of the race. It was a cheer akin to when Dale Earnhardt would take the lead. Stewart is talented with a good car and a great owner, but is not a popular driver. He’s unpopular in fact, to the point that fans are happy when he’s out of the race. Kind of like Jeff Gordon, only that’s subsided a bit.

People don’t want to see Gordon win, but like how he competes on the racetrack. His competitive nature pushed Kevin Harvick off the track and started a fourteen-car pileup that took many of the contenders out of the race. Gordon received payback a few laps later, as Sterling Marlin rubbed him off the track with a bump on the rear fender. Gordon said he was just trying to protect his track position, much like in the Harvick incident.

The rules at Daytona mandate that the drivers hold their positions, keep their foot to the floor, and don’t yield an inch. Gordon said he was just trying to keep his position, and following the rules. “I wasn’t going under the yellow line, that’s for sure,” said Gordon in the post-race interview. “It was just racin’, no hard feelings,” according to Marlin.

When the race was red flagged in lap 195, Marlin was in the lead, but had damaged the front of his car in his altercation with Gordon. During the stop, Marlin inexplicably jumped out of his car and ran around to the right side,, pulling on the fender. The NASCAR official in the pace car jumped out and yelled something to Marlin like, “Hey, get back in the car!” Marlin ran back to the drivers’ side and got in but it was too late. NASCAR assessed him a penalty, putting him in the back of the lead laps “longest line” and his chances to win were dashed.

Gordon was put in the back as well, with NASCAR officials saying he pitted too early during a caution. Thankfully, no one was injured in the race, despite 9 cautions and multiple wrecks. “I think we need to go faster,” 2001 Champion Michael Waltrip said. “It strings us out more, but I don’t make the rules, just dabble in the rules. Make the restrictor plate bigger and we’ll race more.”

Ward Burton knew luck was on his side, “we didn’t have the best car, we only lead the last couple of laps.” It’s Dodge’s first win at Daytona since 1974, and only their third win ever in the Great American Race.

There’s something about the 19th starting position as well. Michael Waltrip and Burton both started from the 19th position in their winning year. Waltrip and Burton join Dale Earnhardt as first time winners at Daytona, three of the last five years. But it’s not all-good news. Only once since 1980 has the winner of the Daytona 500 gone on to win the NASCAR season championship. That was Jeff Gordon in 1997.

Give me more races like this one. Nobody gets hurt, everybody’s talking about the race and the finish and how to make it better. I don’t care who wins, just give me some racing.