Mark Martin (5) leads a pack of cars during race one of the Gatorade Duel at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday. At 51, Martin became the oldest Daytona 500 pole winner. He has never won the race, but finished in the top five nine times. (Scott A. Miller / US Presswire)
It seems appropriate that this Daytona 500 falls on Valentine's Day, the day NASCAR hopes its fans will fall back in love with its sport.
The Great American Race is NASCAR's great American opportunity to rekindle a dying love affair.
NASCAR must transform what has become the mundanely monotonous Dulltona 500 back into the deliriously dramatic Daytona 500.
NASCAR entered the American sporting consciousness in 1979 when CBS first televised the race wire-to-wire on a day when the entire East Coast, because of a blizzard, was stuck in the house watching TV.
That historic, histrionic race ended with Cale Yarborough and the Allison boys wrecking each other on the final lap and brawling on the backstretch as the ultra-popular Richard Petty breezed by for the victory. That was America's first real taste of the rowdy, howdy world of stock-car racing.
Well, guess what? When the gentlemen (sorry, no Danica) start their engines at 10 a.m. PST, the East Coast will still be blanketed by the record-breaking snowfall of a few days ago and bracing for yet another snowstorm tomorrow.
Meanwhile, NASCAR is doing everything it can to return to its "If you ain't rubbin', you ain't racin' " roots that captivated the country three decades ago.
The powers that be are finally starting to listen to those who matter most: the fans and the drivers. NASCAR has always been the most autocratic of all the major sports. The France family founded it, funded it and ran it with an iron fist for three generations. And if you didn't like the way they did things -- too bad.
But there's an old proverb: "Arrogance diminishes wisdom." And that's what happened to NASCAR. Because of the sport's booming success in the 1990s and early 2000s, NASCAR thought it could do no wrong. Profits took precedent over product. NASCAR drove so fast into the future, its past was left choking on the dust.
"The days of exciting races at Daytona and Talladega [NASCAR's two superspeedways] are over," Dale Earnhardt Sr. said of all the changes to adjust the aerodynamics, regulate the engines and slow down the cars. "It's no fun anymore. They finally got it like Indy-car racing."
Turns out the Intimidator was right. The Daytona 500 turned into a bunch of puttering, powerless cars lollygagging around the track single file, afraid to get out of line for fear they would get shuffled to the rear of the pack. There was so little passing that NASCAR might as well have painted double yellow lines down the middle of Daytona's famous 2.5-mile tri-oval.
It's no wonder ticket sales have plunged and TV ratings declined in recent years. Even before the economy went into the tank, NASCAR had begun to alienate its fan base.
And that brings us to Sunday's Daytona 500, where the sport will attempt to drive its way back to the future. Speed will increase with the bigger restrictor plates. Aggressiveness will escalate now that NASCAR has legalized bump-drafting.
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition, put it best during a preseason news conference when he sent this message to the drivers heading into the 2010 season:
"Boys, have at it."