DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The Daytona 500 was sold out, the grid packed with celebrities, the fan area full of activities including a motorcycle “Ball of Death.”
Owen “Lightning McQueen” Wilson was on hand, and so was Waka Flocka Flame, Gronk and nearly two dozen women scantily clad in Monster Energy outfits.
One thing NASCAR had for its season opener was a much-needed spark and an atmosphere worthy of the hype associated with its biggest race.
But for all the buzzwords — NASCAR is edgy! — star power and a Monster-fueled fervor that made the race a hot ticket, it couldn’t hide the one thing that still continues to tug at the heart of the sport:
The sport’s leaders had worked so hard to make a splash and push the message that this was a new NASCAR. Even the drivers could feel it.
“The whole week was a lot of fun. All the media. All the buildup. The sellout,” said NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Felt like it was a new beginning of sorts in some way for the sport. It seemed like there was a new energy. I don’t know what it was. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it just felt good.”
Right up until go time.
NASCAR revamped the rules that turned races into segments — three, like periods in the NHL — designed to keep fans engaged from the drop of the green flag. But a series of wrecks wiped out contenders such as Earnhardt and defending champion Jimmie Johnson and others, and there were lengthy red-flag delays. The top 10 became loaded with drivers more familiar with the back of the pack and all that energy faded away.
Gronk can’t save them every week, either.
New England tight end Rob Gronkowski almost overshadowed race winner Kurt Busch. Both are sponsored by Monster, NASCAR’s new title sponsor, but it was Gronk who was out until 5:30 a.m. Monday following NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
The biggest race of the year was far from NASCAR’s best and the new format fell a little flat from the promised amazingness drivers insisted it will deliver. It wasn’t a dud, but it’s impossible to know after one crash-filled weekend if it’s any good.
It was wreck after wreck after wreck Sunday, and almost all the top names were taken out early. It meant Canadian driver D.J. Kennington’s debut in the Daytona 500 produced a better finish than those of Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth, both two-time Daytona 500 winners, and 2015 series champion Kyle Busch.
Cole Whitt was at one point the race leader, and before Kurt Busch claimed the victory, it appeared the win could go to either Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson or Ryan Blaney — three drivers with an average age of 22 and one win in a combined 209 starts.
That Kurt Busch led just one lap, the last one, was fitting for this race. It was the first time in 59 years that the winner led only the final lap.
In the end, the television rating was up, the mood was mostly upbeat and Monster was as proud of Busch’s victory as it was of Gronk’s all-nighter. At Busch’s Monday winner’s breakfast, Monster vice president of sports marketing Mitch Covington noted that Gronk had put in a 24-hour shift for the company.
That a hard-partying NFL player could steal thunder from the Daytona 500 winner is a problem NASCAR has to address. The big names are getting old, and the sport is going to be in desperate need of some superstars very soon.
And if NASCAR intends to be the rock star that Monster can create, it’s going to need far better racing that it got at Daytona.
Jenna Fryer is an Associated Press writer