That was the call on Monday night when NASCAR began its 2012 run for the Sprint Cup with the biggest, baddest race of all, the Daytona 500. And if you stayed up for the finish – the race ended about 1 a.m. on Tuesday – you saw a great duel between eventual winner Matt Kenseth and runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr., not to mention enough pyrotechnics for another Rambo sequel.
It’s been noted before that NASCAR is the only sports organization that has its marquee event at the beginning of the season instead of the end. It’s like the NFL playing the Super Bowl on Sept. 1 and then the next week the Eagles open the regular season against Cleveland.
But nobody seems to care that it doesn’t make sense – it’s a tradition, and that’s good enough for a sport that is trying to balance its good ol’ boy history with a surge in popularity that has carried NASCAR beyond its southern roots and made it a coast-to-coast fan favorite.
Now the challenge is for NASCAR to maintain that popularity, which has waned in the last couple of years for various reasons, including a bad economy and some boring racing. That, of course, is very important in Delaware, whose economy makes millions of dollars from the two annual NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway.
And even though Monday-into-Tuesday’s race at Daytona once again showed that this is a sport where almost anything can happen, there are at least two things on which you can count in 2012:
There will be controversies this NASCAR season, because there are controversies every NASCAR season, whether it’s because of the rules or because of who is breaking them.
And there will be confrontations this NASCAR season, because there are confrontations every NASCAR season. That’s partly because of the competitive nature of the drivers and partly because some of these guys just don’t like each other. And, of course, millions of dollars are at stake. That’s a volatile combination, especially at 190 mph.
Maybe the biggest reason for NASCAR’s success is that the sport has what every good drama needs – heroes and villains. And unlike the movies, where those roles are already defined for you, in NASCAR you get to choose your own good guys and bad guys. And there are plenty of each from which to choose, which means some people love drivers that other people hate.
Nobody in the history of the sport brought out that love-hate relationship as much as the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., although there are several drivers today who have that unique twist on fan appeal. They include Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who are adored by some fans and abhorred by others. And that means everybody, friend and foe alike, has a rooting interest in how they finish.
That’s also why it’s important that Dale Jr. continues to challenge for checkered flags. He still carries the torch for his father’s fans as well as his own and that’s why NASCAR has its greasy fingers crossed that he is still behind the wheel for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, along with well-known names like Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Stewart, last year’s Cup winner.
Like any professional sports group, NASCAR promotes its most marketable people. And just like baseball owners and television executives would be thrilled with a Yankees-Dodgers World Series, NASCAR honchos would be delighted to see the Sprint Cup come down to the final turn of the final race with those four going at it door-to-door.
Of course, if you don’t win the Sprint Cup, a checkered flag from Daytona is a nice consolation prize. It’s been the most prestigious event in stock car racing since Lee Petty edged Johnny Beauchamp in a photo finish to win the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. And more legends have been made at Daytona than all the other tracks combined.
In this case, the best has not been saved for last.