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Fans and drivers deserve a full 500


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH -- Finish it.

Make an exception. Wait all night under the lights. Come back the next day. Do anything, something, but by golly run the Daytona 500 in its entirety. Every last mile.

It's the right thing to do.

The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's biggest event, its Super Bowl. It was rain-shortened for just the third time in its 45-year history Sunday, the first time since the modern era began in 1972.

That's a lot of sunshine through the years.

But when the Daytona 500 is called after 109 of 200 laps, there are no winners. Nothing against Michael Waltrip, whose car was strong and at the head of the line when the rains came, but who wouldn't like to see those last 91 laps?

This, some say, is the way NASCAR works. Everyone knew the rules when the day started, and NASCAR rules say a race becomes official when it reaches halfway. That's fine, for Pocono. Or New Hampshire. Or Atlanta.

But not for the Daytona 500.

NASCAR makes rules to serve its purpose at the drop of a hat. Why not make one, now? Monday was a national holiday, Presidents Day, a perfect opportunity for racing. Why not use it?

The last time the 500 was rain-shorted, by two laps in 1966, Richard Petty already had lapped the field. But the use of restrictor plates, which limit speeds by reducing airflow into the carburetor, guarantees edge-of-the-seat racing all the way.

Let's see it.

This race pays the same number of Winston Cup championship points as any other, but clearly this race is like no other. An inordinate amount of time and money is spent on the Daytona 500. Teams spend all winter preparing cars. NASCAR requires teams to test at Daytona for three days in January.

It takes an engineering degree just to understand the qualifying system, which requires teams to run time trials with the car in qualifying trim, then spend days preparing for a 125-mile race just to earn a starting spot.

SpeedWeeks in February is a 14-day odyssey of qualifying and racing in six series, all leading to the big finish -- the Daytona 500. Fans from across the nation mark their calendars and save their pennies to pay exorbitant hotel and ticket prices. An estimated 190,000 packed the stands and infield.

For 109 laps?

Sorry, not good enough.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated SpeedWeeks with victories in the Bud Shootout, a 125-mile qualifier and the Busch Grand National opener. He was among the best cars early in the 500, but a faulty alternator drained the battery in the No. 8 Chevrolet and cost him laps.

Earnhardt Jr. should have had 91 more laps to battle back.

Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon should have had a chance to overtake Waltrip. Same for Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. Same for everyone who invested time and energy and money and passion into the Great American Race.

It's the Daytona 500.

Not the Daytona 272.5.

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