If 1979 was the breakout year for the WINSTON series, I think to-day's race may be looked back upon as the break-out race for the Grand National series. Oh, sure, there were a lot of crashes that could be possibly attributed to inexperience, but the competition was intense, and the lack of experience was not that noticeable - in fact I think more veterans of the series than newcomers to Daytona ended up in trouble!
There were some elements that will make this race seen as pivotal in my mind:
First, it was broadcast live on CBS, a first, although not as dramatic a move by the Network as back in '79, since we've nearly all got cable access and woulda seen it anyway.
Second, the racin' was close, with as much cut and thrust as in the major series.
Third, and possibly most important, second, third and fourth generation drivers such as Hamilton Jr, Jason Jarrett, Kerry and Dale Jr (Earnhardts), and Adam Petty brought a neat sense of family and continuity to the event, that, I thought, gave this race possibly more the feel of NASCAR of many years ago, than does the current WC series!
The race started with Schrader on the pole, and Lajoie to the outside. DE2 found hisself at the rear, after wreckin' his primary car in "Happy Hour" on Friday, as did six others. Overall, there were ten "Daytona Rookies" in the field, including Adam Petty, Kenseth, Atwood, Hamilton Jr and Jason Jarrett(?). Barry and dad Geoffrey Bodine didn't make the race, but uncle/brother Todd was in. Also among the dnq's was Morgan Shepherd (0 for 2...).
The green fell, and Lajoie got the lead over Kenny. Poor Dave Blaney was done after one lap, as he left his engine fluids on the track. Lap four saw Keller's #57 smokin'...
The racin' was typical Daytona for the first 20 laps, with a line of three or four out front, headed by Lajoie, then two trains lined up from about fifth on back. In the madness, the rookies seemed to be doing well, with Petty, Kerry Earnhardt, and Jarrett, acquitting themselves well. Hamilton Jr was strugglin', however, and would ultimately lose much time in the pits.
DE2 had already bulled up to 21st, when the first caution flew on lap 26. Looked like Mike Waltrip lost the back end out of turn 2, and all Hell broke out behind him. Once the tire smoke had cleared, Waltrip, Purvis, Sawyer and Santerre seemed to be in the most trouble. We learned that Santerre had busted a leg, and will miss six months! He took a hard lick, gettin' sideways in the smoke, and hittin' Waltrip's stationary wreck along the outside wall, driver's side first. Ouch...
Most of the field pitted, and Martin took only two tires to get field position. It worked, putting him in the lead when the green flew on lap 32. Chasing Mark were Shrader, Lajoie, Jeff Green and Mike Mclaughlin, rounding out top five. Two laps later, Mark got hung out in the draft, falling back into the top ten. Meantime Dale Jr was up to thirteenth.
We came back from a commercial around lap 37, to see Kenny parking the Oakwood machine, after getting tagged by Amick, sending Kenny into the wall - not hard, but enuff to ultimately end his day.
By lap 46, Lajoie, Green, Nemechek and McLaughlin had hooked up, and had a little space on the rest of the swarm. DEjr and team mate Hornaday had hooked up in a draft to work up into the top ten.
A few laps later, say lap 58-60, Lajoie had to pit, due to a tire goin' down.
At exactly the same time, the second caution flew, due to Benson's car stopping on the track.
Now this next bit I don't understand: When Lajoie came out, he had been lapped by some of the leaders. They waved him by, and by the skin of his teeth, he unlapped himself before the pace car got out to pick up the field. The rest of the field dutifully pitted, and Lajoie inherited first! Why was everyone so nice to Randy? I think he's a great guy, too, but...
The green flew on lap 64, and Lajoie was first, then Musgrave, Nemechek, DEjr and Jeff Green made up the top five. Adam Petty was riding comfortably in ninth!
Nemechek's run ended on lap 70, with a blown motor.
Once again, we came back from commercial, to the third caution, caused by a solo loop by Fedewa.
Again most of 'em hit the pits, and on the green on lap 80, Amick, who'd stayed out, was the leader. On his tail was Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. Amick had a slow start, and poor DEjr was pushed into him by third-place Labonte. He squirted up into the wall, got all sideways, and again all Hell broke out in the pack. Ultimately,in htis fourth caution, seven cars were involved, and were either out, or rejoined later, several laps down after lots of sheetmetal hammerin'. Things restarted on lap 83, with Lajoie leading, and Petty sittin' third!
Four laps later, caution five flew, as Kenseth and Kerry Earnhardt made contact, sendin' Kerry into the wall. A multicar smokefest ensued, and at the end, Earnhardt, Jarrett, Pearson, Fuller and Mark Green, were among those in it.
The race restarted on lap 96, with Jeff Green leading Lajoie, Lepage, Bown, Kevin Grubb, Petty, Burton, Loney, Atwood, and Hillenberg. Petty showed a lot of strength, and Grandad Richard's style, passin' Grubb and Bown on the high side, on hisway to fourth place. Very Impressive for an 18 year old!
After a few laps of shufflin', order on lap 105 had Lajoie leading Atwood (18 yr old, again!), Kenseth, Petty, Hillin, and Hillenberg, as a semi-breakaway pack. Around lap 115, Petty had the front wash out, and by the time he'd collected it, he was out of the top five.
With two to go, Lajoie led, with Atwood and Kenseth side-by-side on his tail, and the rest lined up in two trains behind them.
Just out of turn four, with one and a bit to go, We suddenly had Atwood airborne, doing a lazy backflip, about six feet off the ground, then slidin' across the start-finish line on his roof, prior to catching the grass, and doing a series of barrel rolls. Lajoie took the white and yellow together, and the race ended under caution. Replay showed that Hillenberg got into Casey's rear, turning him and lifting the car to let the air get under it. The roof flaps never got a chance to deploy.
Fortunately, Atwood was unhurt, a testimonial to the car's chassis strength.
Final top ten order was Lajoie, Jeff Green, Hillenberg, Mclaughlin, Kenseth, Hillen, Petty, Lepage, Grubb and Burton.
All in all, an excellent race, and an exciting prelude to The Big One tomorrow!