NASCAR hoping for gaffe-free start

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports
NASCAR hoping for gaffe-free start
Last year's Daytona 500 was halted twice as crews tried to repair a pothole in between Turns 1 and 2

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Speed. That's what people come to Daytona International Speedway to see, and Friday night that's what they got … until the lights went out.

There was Jeff Gordon, leading a two-car draft through Turn 2 pushing 200 mph. But just as he exited the turn, darkness rained down on Daytona's 3,000-foot backstretch.

A transformer blew, halting all action for about 15 minutes.

Fortunately for NASCAR, it happened during practice, not Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout. But what if?

No doubt there have been prayers said this week, extended upward from the household of Brian France – begging, pleading for the next eight days to go smoothly. Because NASCAR, desperate for some good news, can ill afford to step in it again.

Two years ago, it was a rain-shortened finish to the Daytona 500 that drew the ire of NASCAR Nation. Last year, it was a pothole. Blame whoever (if you have to), but the bottom line is NASCAR has kicked off each of the last two Cup seasons in embarrassing fashion.

Tack on a more than 20-percent dip in TV ratings during last year's Chase, a five-time defending champion who, outside of losing, can do no right by some and a playoff system that still isn't embraced by a large faction of its fan base, and NASCAR heads into 2011 battered and bruised.

Now comes Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, which unofficially kicks off the 2011 season with the Bud Shootout – a 75-lap exhibition that's effectively a checkers-or-wreckers proposition for the 24 invited drivers. The Shootout will be the first big-time test of the new Daytona, which has been entirely repaved after last year's debacle.

While the track looks spectacular – its untarnished black surface gives the place a new-car feel – exactly what kind of racing it will produce remains to be seen. This much we know: It's going to be fast. Joey Logano topped 203 mph on Friday.

"The racing during the drafting was exciting, and I think it is going to be a good show, a more exciting show for the fans, because the cars are going to stay real tight on each other," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in December during a tire test.

NASCAR can only hope Earnhardt is right. Because despite all that is perceivably wrong with the sport right now, the product on the track remains solid.

Like the Chase or not, last year's battle for the championship, which came down to three drivers from three different teams, was epic. And that battle didn't even include anyone from Roush Fenway, arguably the hottest team at season's end.

With the re-emergence of Roush along with Richard Childress Racing, coupled with the perennial power of Joe Gibbs Racing, the competition should be even more fierce this season.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson has won five titles in a row, but Hendrick Motorsports no longer has the field covered as it did when they finished 1-2-3 in 2009. So when Denny Hamlin says Johnson didn't win the 2010 championship, "as much as we lost it," he has a point. The title was there for the taking and should be again this season.

"We're putting pressure on Hendrick," Greg Biffle said. "What Childress did last year and us coming up with four wins, I'm thinking we're gonna start even better this season. And Gibbs is always right there. Yeah, it's four tough teams and there are other two-car teams – Stewart-Haas – that we're not talking about."

Competition. That is what NASCAR has going for it. All France and the rest of the NASCAR brass can do now is hope that's where the focus remains, not on the egg that's been on their faces each of the last two Februarys.

They dodged a bullet Friday night. They won't have that luxury the rest of the week.