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Third Place

Lee Spencer, Sporting News

Call it the super bowl and I’ll smack you

It never fails that sometime during Speedweeks some simpleton, in an attempt to be clever, will refer to the Daytona 500 as the Super Bowl of  Stock Car Racing. What a bunch of crap. Winning the Daytona 500 doesn't mean squat to the championship picture. When a sports fan thinks of the Super Bowl, many visions come to mind. Stock car racing isn't one of them. And with Jimmy Spencer sidelined from racing, there aren't many drivers with the junkyard dog mentality it takes to survive one quarter in a regular-season NFL rout, let alone the main event that culminates five months of beating and banging. Can anyone really imagine Jeff Gordon (5-7, 150 soaking wet) going up against the Bus (5-11, 255-plus)?

I didn't think so.

Though the word super could be used to describe 500 miles at Daytona, a better word is exhilarating – especially if you're the guy behind the wheel. But a bowl should determine a title.

All the talk about how winning the Daytona 500 gives a team momentum for the rest of the season is pure rubbish. Since Lee Petty won the first 500 in 1959 and captured the Cup in the same year, that feat has been duplicated only six times. Gordon was the most recent driver to accomplish that, in 1997, after a 20-year drought (Cale Yarborough, 1977). The King, Richard Petty, scored Daytona 500 and Cup trophies in four seasons ('64, '71, '74 and '79).

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver among the past five 500 winners to ride a momentum wave even as far as a top five finish at the end of a season.

If any of today's drivers has a shot at winning the 500 and the title in the same season, it is 2005 Cup champion Tony Stewart. He was relentless on restrictor-plate tracks in 2005. After finishing seventh in the Daytona 500 in February, he won the Daytona Cup race in July and was second in both Talladega races. Stewart is hungry for a Daytona 500 trophy, and when he sets his mind on something, look out.

If Smoke wins the Daytona 500 on Sunday, he will have won NASCAR's season opener, kickoff or whatever else you want to call it.

Just don't call it the Super Bowl.

Bump drafting scares Stewart

When the reigning Nextel Cup champion, Tony Stewart, talks about increasing his life insurance policy before next weekend because of many episodes of violent bump drafting at Daytona, it's time for NASCAR to listen.

That's the message Stewart, who obviously was upset, wanted to send out after Sunday's Bud Shootout. Stewart said he watched a Dale Earnhardt tribute on TV hours before the race. He said he feared that in another five years he could be watching a retrospective on another fatally injured driver if NASCAR didn't take action to curtail the slamming between cars that occurs as one driver attempts to use his bumper to push another driver into the lead.

"We're probably going to kill somebody from Wednesday to Sunday," Stewart said. "And it could be me; it could be Dale Jr.; it could be anyone out there."

Stewart said this isn't a new problem, just one that has escalated over the past few years. Although the practice generally occurs on the straightaways, it sometimes happens in corners, when a driver is running at an angle and can't correct the car.

Stewart suggested reducing the amount of reinforcements the bumpers get with steel bars for restrictor-plate races. The potential damage to the cars without a well-protected front end would force drivers to think twice before aiming a bump.

Extreme Makeover, starring Kurt Busch

YOU'RE INVITED!

WHAT: Kurt Busch's Coming Out Party.

WHEN: March 10-12, or however long it takes.

WHERE: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.   

There's no better locale for Busch to have his coming out party than Las Vegas.  Not only is Vegas Busch's hometown, it's the perfect place to start a party--or put a little Sin City spin on a star looking to
restart his career.

Busch has been the Mea Culpa Kid since he took on fan favorite Jimmy Spencer in 2003 at Michigan. Brash and aggressive always has been Busch's style --on and off the track. In former Roush Racing crew chief Jimmy Fennig, Busch found the necessary balance to his fury. With a veteran like Fennig to depend on, Busch was able to concentrate on winning, and he eventually won a championship.

Unfortunately, Busch didn't fit the Roush driver template. Make no mistake, Busch inflicted a lot of his mess on himself. Roush Racing has plenty of talent and engineering ingenuity, but it lacks a staff of spin doctors who could have marketed Busch properly and activated the necessary damage control to absolve him of the errors of his youth.

It's not surprising Busch went in search of sexy sponsor Miller Brewing to turn his career around.
Busch hit a major roadblock when the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department pulled him over last November at Phoenix. Roush Racing let him hang. President Geoff Smith said the company no longer would be "apologists" for Busch.

Busch was finished for the season, and that enabled Roger Penske to step in and start working his magic.

As a former driver, Penske has an incredible eye for talent. Busch is the latest driver in a stable that has included Mark Donohue, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser, Tom Sneva, Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Allison. Penske never has shied from outspoken, over-the-top racers such as Paul Tracy and Rusty Wallace, as long as their performances have matched their chutzpah.

Like Busch, Wallace was a former champion in need of an extreme makeover when he joined Penske Racing for the 1991 season. After 15 years and a lot of Penske polish, Wallace has become a successful entrepreneur, and he possesses the necessary presence to make the transition into the ESPN booth.

If Busch is willing to take the same direction from Penske – and I believe he is – his future will be equally bright. As the 2004 champion and the winner of 14 Nextel Cup races, Busch has nothing left to prove on the track but plenty to prove off of it.

Personally, I've never had an issue with Busch. He is always gracious and accommodating with me. I can walk into his hauler and discuss a variety of topics, from racecars to Cubbies spring training.

Miller and Penske are doing a great job of promoting Busch away from the track. When he's not on stage or under the spotlight and just being Kurt Busch, he can be the life of the party

The real deal is knowing when to hold off

Dale Earnhardt Jr. calls it "the killer instinct." It's that innate take-no-prisoners attitude a driver must possess if he's going to make it at NASCAR's Nextel Cup level. But it must be controlled aggressiveness for a driver to flourish and be respected in the process. A driver can be a hard charger without making idiotic moves that compromise his and his competitors' finishes. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the master, and Junior was the perfect student. He idolized his teacher and observed every line, every zig, every zag on the racetrack and absorbed even more moves that are likely to hit him as "aha" moments when he least expects.

Psychologists would have a field day trying to determine whether it was nature or nurture that helped Driver 8 evolve into the star that he is. My deduction is it's a combination.

Junior knows what traits it takes to make a successful racecar driver. He's not – and I repeat not – known for taking risks that put other drivers in harm's way. As an owner, he wants to project those same expectations onto his Busch Series driver, Mark McFarland. It's not a bad lesson for other 20-somethings, either.

Here's Junior's recipe for success: "You have to bring out that temper a little bit but still be able to control it at the same time. You've got to drive these cars with some rage. You can't always be strategic and pace yourself. There are times you have to get after it and show these guys who the boss is."

When Dale Sr. was on the racetrack, there was no doubt who the boss was. He feared no one. Junior has adopted the boss role at restrictor-plate tracks and has the ability to do so at short tracks, especially Bristol. His stock on intermediate tracks will improve with time.

Where Junior differs from his dad is his reluctance to win at any cost. He won't risk dumping another driver to take home the trophy, and that has gotten him tremendous respect among his peers and the drivers who raced his father.

Many racers who competed during Earnhardt Sr.'s tenure have retired. The trend in Cup has moved toward youth, which has led to an increased level of aggressiveness on the racetrack. Many of the young drivers haven't had the seat time in the feeder series that would have helped them learn to be patient.

But that up-on-the-wheel exuberance sells tickets and attracts viewers. Fans don't want to watch racers out for a Sunday drive.

Yet as the transition between mature racers and young guns continues, NASCAR must find a way to restrain the recent over-the-top aggressiveness before someone gets seriously injured.