May 14, 2011
By Guest Columnist Cathy Elliott
We hear a lot of talk in NASCAR about the power of teamwork.
The “fully loaded” multi-car teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are expected to produce wins week after week, and they do not disappoint. Of the 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races already run this season headed to Dover International Speedway May 13-15, drivers from those four teams had carried home the trophies for eight of them.
Still, beginning with young Trevor Bayne’s historic Daytona 500 win for Wood Brothers Racing back in February, the events that have simultaneously defied and surpassed our expectations, rather than the ones that have merely met them, are the ones we can’t seem to stop talking about.
A lot of barely-contained horsepower was revved up and ready to race on Saturday, May 7. A sea of heads, still bobbing excitedly in their unique parade of hats, exited Churchill Downs after enjoying the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby, while a different crowd in another Southern state – sporting their own brand of colorful caps -- settled into their seats in preparation for the start of Darlington Raceway’s Showtime Southern 500.
Each race featured both favorites and long shots, handicapped and qualified based on training, prior performance and the skill and experience levels of the individual jockeys.
Although the two events were quite different, they exhibited a little teamwork of their own that day. While race car drivers and racehorses are obviously separated by a few evolutionary rungs, a quick glance at the names on the starting lineups revealed a definite symbiosis between competitors in the Derby and the Southern 500, two of the most legendary events in professional sports.
Brilliant Speed was personified by Kasey Kahne, who returned to Darlington after winning the track’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in March and blistered his way to the pole position for the Southern 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was, and is, Still Thirsty. Junior remained winless after Darlington despite maintaining a consistently strong presence in the driver standings all season.
When considering the odds-on Derby favorite, you couldn’t help but think about Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Cup Series champion and a two-time winner at Darlington, who could easily remain Dialed In until someone else manages to find the correct number.
Twice the Appeal was happily present at Darlington in the form of Carl Edwards. Carl and his wife Kate welcomed their second child, 8-pound, 6-ounce Michael Edwards, into the family just three days before the race.
Kyle Busch blazed into Darlington with his Pants on Fire, cruising to victory in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race and maintaining that stride until the final laps of the Southern 500, when a late-race altercation with rival Kevin Harvick set tempers on fire along with those trousers.
Mucho Macho Man also did Derby/Darlington double duty; you can pretty much take your pick of NASCAR drivers on that one.
Every once in a while, a particularly hungry competitor will come out of nowhere and snatch the spoils of the hunt out of an adversary’s hands. No one paid much attention to Animal Kingdom as the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” rang out over the track at Churchill Downs prior to the race. According to the oddsmakers, his chances of winning were low, and to make matters worse, his jockey for the Derby was a last-minute substitute with no experience on the horse.
Similarly, nobody gave Regan Smith much of a chance, or probably even much of a thought, headed into the Showtime Southern 500. Vegasinsider.com listed Animal Kingdom’s Derby odds at 30-1, which doesn’t sound like a high level of optimism unless you compare it to the same website’s odds on Smith winning the Southern 500, which were 100-1. Not only had Smith never won at Darlington, but he had never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, period, and NASCAR’s toughest track is not known for its kindness to the inexperienced.
In the Academy Award-winning film “Rocky,” as boxer Rocky Balboa is preparing to face off against heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, his wife Adrian observes, “Einstein flunked out of school, twice. Beethoven was deaf. Helen Keller was blind. I think Rocky's got a good chance!”
The New York Times called Animal Kingdom’s win a “victory for the sport.” Many in the motorsports media are saying the same thing about Smith, the relatively unknown driver from a small, single-car team who went out and slew not only the giant names of NASCAR, but one ornery Goliath of a racetrack.
In a single day, two solo athletes used very different brands of horsepower to form an unexpected tandem, as both of these longshots beat the odds and hit the very same jackpot, on the very same day: The Winner’s Circle.
Success in racing can never be taken for granted, as the sport is so unpredictable; like the powerful horses for which its engines are nicknamed, stock car racing can be dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, which always makes for an interesting ride. Could we see another darkhorse fight his way to the front of the NASCAR field this season, surprising us yet again?
I wouldn’t bet against it.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.