Fire and ice at Daytona: crashes and sparks, and then ice on those bruises (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Closing up shop and heading up I-95 toward New Hampshire, and rewinding the videos on Saturday night's Coke 400...
However exciting the visuals from the closing laps of this event, with all the sparks and fireworks and sheer carnage, a few things are clear right now.
-- Until the wrecking began, the 400 was just the monotonous hum of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle leading the big train around and around, with no drama or lead changes... with drivers, as at Talladega, more worried about water temperatures than real racing.
The contrast with the wild show the Nationwide drivers put on here Friday night -- a race in which two-car drafting was perfectly legal, and doggone exciting -- was stark.
-- The Cup drivers didn't like the rules for the 400 game, especially the water temperature rules. Something needs to be changed before the playoff race at Talladega in October, to keep fans from switching TV channels.
-- The sport is very lucky that someone didn't get seriously hurt, particularly in that pit road crash involving Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski.
And yet no penalties?
It is simply absurd that simply speeding on pit road by a little bit leads to a mandatory harsh penalty, yet knocking a car into another car and nearly wiping out a pit crew is just shrugged off by NASCAR officials. If safety is priority, then something needs to change.
Maybe NASCAR could start by eliminating that archaic, artificial, gimmicky rule about 'closing' pit road, to make pit road safer by spreading out the stops.
Jeff Gordon: what was really going on during that pit stop, when he collided with Ryan Newman? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Without radio contact with fellow drivers, most men were simply driving blind, in formation. The two-car drafting, which NASCAR execs seem to dislike for some reason, was alive and well in Friday night's Nationwide race, which was one of the best races of the season. Saturday the big pack was back, and nobody was doing much of anything but riding around protecting the engine from overheating.
-- Team owners lost a heckava lot of expensive equipment. Good thing, maybe, that this is the last COT race at Daytona.
-- It's time to get those 2013 Daytona 500 cars out on the track, in order to work out any bugs, so next February's 500 isn't, uh, the mess this 400 turned into. NASCAR officials have had three tries now this season to get the Daytona-Talladega rules package right, and it looks like teams should be braced for number four...and making some strong suggestions.
Ryan Newman: not pleased with Jeff Gordon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Whatever it was, it didn't really look much like racing.
Not classic American racing.
Now there is probably some good way to put on a good, clean show at Daytona, but whatever the rules package NASCAR has on these cars right now doesn't seem to be working very well.
These drivers seemed to be riding virtually unguided missiles.
Even winner Tony Stewart repeated his opinion that this sport's two biggest ovals are better suited for Figure-8 racing....
The new water temperature rules, designed to make engines overheat, if the drivers get too close to each other, sounds like a backwards way of accomplishing something.
And some drivers, like Jeff Burton, runner-up in the 400, say NASCAR execs may have simply over-engineered the problem and created an even bigger mess.
Certainly the infield hospital was far busier than it should have been.
Denny Hamlin (11) had a rough night, missing a shot at the win because of this late race crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Denny Hamlin, already ailing with major-league back problems, gave everyone a scare when he was slow to respond after the crash he got caught up in.
"I'm all right," Hamlin said. "None of the hits were too bad except for the last one in the right-side door."
Hamlin was in good position to challenge for the win late and was making a run when he got chopped off by Greg Biffle.
Then all hell broke loose on the frontstretch.
While the first two hours or so of this thing were a monotonous drone, with Matt Kenseth at the head of the parade, the final half was madness and chaos.
"We were all jumbled, and jockeying for position," Hamlin said. "It looked like Greg came down and got the right-front fender.... and I was already loose anyway.
"After that, you're just a Ping-Pong ball."
Great weather Saturday night at Daytona (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Biffle takes responsibility for that late-race crash that closed out the curious event. "I just turned down in front of Kevin Harvick," Biffle said of the last-lap crash. "He got a hell of a shove off the front of Junior (Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
"I just watched the replay, and I'm like 'It's impossible that somebody could get into that hole that quick.'
"But he shot in there.
"It was my fault."
The weekend ended on a downer for Kurt Busch. After that rockin' win in Friday's Nationwide race, his 400 was rather disappointing.
Not that Busch didn't make it exciting. He was very aggressive, but when he went up the middle in a three-wide with Aric Almirola and Trevor Bayne midway through the race, it bit him.
"I guess I had way too good a Daytona in 2011, and just wasn't meant to have a good one this year," Busch said. "It's the law of average, I guess.
"You just spin the roulette wheel, see who comes out of it, and spin it again."
The finish didn't deter Nick Harrison, Busch's crew chief on both Cup and Nationwide tours: "Kurt was just racing hard.
"It was unlucky, and he's down on himself a little bit. He knows it's just part of this racing.
"That's just emotion coming out of him. He wanted to win and he wanted to sweep the weekend, and that's what we love about him."
Not a good finish for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Almost lost in the crash-fest was Jeff Burton rousing finish.
The engine temperature rules forced Burton and his teammates to play a waiting game, to keep from overheating.
"We had the trouble at Talladega as well -- we were just too hot," Burton says. "We can't run a whole race racing the way we really want to race. We have to get out of the pack, or we run too much oil temp and too much water temp.
"I think we have a package issue that's just not working with this combination.
"We had the tandem thing figured out really well, but we're just a little behind on this. We've got to go to work and figure out where we're missing it, because we're not wanting to ride around in the back.
"We're feeling we have to. If we don't, we're not going to finish a race."
Finally a good day for Jeff Burton (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Teams Burton says are at the mercy of whatever NASCAR gives them for Daytona-Talladega rules: "You get whatever race they want, with the rule package.
"They wanted to separate tandem racing, and they've done it. They've made it where you can't push anybody for too long. You can do it for three or four laps maybe at the end of the race but you can't do it at any other time.
"Without tandem racing, you are on your own. In the middle of the pack, when there's a hole you feel you've got to go in, you've just got to go in it. Your teammate can't be waiting for you when you're in the middle of the pack.
"When you're in the front of the pack, that's a different deal. You can drag a brake and do things to keep hooked up.
"But in the middle of the pack -- with pack racing -- you've just got to go where you think you've got to go."
And do it blindly.
When teammates did 'team up' for brief periods, the guy in second was unable to see what was going on ahead....one reason for the wild Biffle crash.
"Not being able to talk when you are two-car," Burton said, "is very, very difficult, because the guy pushing you can't see anything.
"I'm sure Kevin didn't really know how close I was to Biffle or what I had going on there.
"We got lucky to get out of it."
However Harvick was not so lucky. And he, like too many others Saturday night, had to check in at the infield hospital, before heading home to be with his wife for the pending birth of their first child.
The setup for the finish: Matt Kenseth (blue) and teammate Greg Biffle on the inside, followed by Childress men Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick. On the outside, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)