NASCAR’s Monster Energy era begins with a blaze of glorious bedlam

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Monster Energy’s tenure as the presenting sponsor of NASCAR’s top level began with a bang.

And a thud.

Throw in a few sparks, a minefield of sheet metal.

Oh, and a lot of lost money, too.

Still, Monster Energy and NASCAR find themselves in a decent position moving forward after the weekend ended in thrilling fashion, with the sponsor’s own Kurt Busch in victory lane.

Difficult Beginnings

The start of Speedweeks wasn’t kind to NASCAR or its new sponsor.

After nearly three months of building anticipation, the sport’s season-opening Saturday night exhibition race – the Advance Auto Parts Clash – was rained out until Sunday morning.

In the race’s stead, the NASCAR airwaves were filled with complaints.

The topic? Clothing.

Whether they were calling out Toyota Racing’s new big-head driver mascots (okay, so they are a little creepy), or slamming the attire of the sport’s newest addition – the Monster Energy Girls, the opening days of the racing season were spent with more discussion on the people in the paddock than racing on the track.

When the Clash finally did take place, it came as a welcome reprieve, lending the focus of the week to Daytona 500 favorites as Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin collided on the last lap to allow Joey Logano to surge to the victory. Qualifying later that day was also accepted with a pleasant reaction as fan-favorites Chase Elliott and the returning Dale Earnhardt, Jr., claimed the front row.

Race week failed to proceed as smoothly.

Media day came and went without many storylines, so the main topics of the week – save for each driver’s Daytona 500 odds – were Monster Energy’s lack of activation at the facility, mixed opinions over the new staged races and damaged vehicle repair rules.

Oh, and one other thing.

That article.

The Wall Street Journal posted a piece Tuesday which discussed NASCAR’s decline in ratings and attendance in NASCAR, and detailed NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France’s relationship with sister Lesa France Kennedy, the CEO of the International Speedway Corporation.

The article generated numerous responses within the paddock. Joe Gibbs and Roger Penske each disregarded the report, saying the sport was in great shape. Gibbs confirmed that he’d been interviewed for the piece, but had none of his quotes – which were positive about the sport – used in the piece.

On to the Show

When racing finally ensued to cap off the week, it devolved into a calamity of crashed cars from start to finish.

The Can-Am Duels proceeded in fairly clean fashion, with the lone controversy stemming from an accident involving Corey LaJoie and Reed Sorenson which left LaJoie in the show while Sorenson failed to qualify.

Still, a slight bit of discussion was eked out amid confusion over the Duels awarding points, as well as a few complaints over the sport’s damaged vehicle repair policy as fans saw their favorite drivers eliminated from the race without a chance to make significant repairs for the first time.

The Camping World Truck Series race brought carnage, with multiple pileups including a last-lap crash that allowed then eighth-place runner Kaz Grala to surge to his first victory. The event’s crash-happy style enticed Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Kyle Busch, among others, into sharing humorous messages on social media.

The XFINITY Series race was no better, spawning four large pileups that saw what was planned to be a day race run well into the night. In the end, Ryan Reed surged to his second Daytona victory in three years as a group of cars crashed behind him. The race, a 300-mile event on one of the series’ fastest tracks, came within a half hour of matching the time of the 2016 Coca-Cola 600.

The first two nights of mashed cars and shredded sheet metals were discarded by some – written off as the nature of NASCAR’s minor series. Surely the Cup series would fare better, right?

Think again.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 began in clean fashion. As a matter of fact, there were only two non Stage-ending cautions during the race’s first two stages – one of the which came from a flat tire for Kyle Busch.

The final stage more than made up for it.

The final 80 laps of Sunday’s event saw four cautions that involved a total of 36 cars, cutting the field in half and eliminating a host of contenders as FOX Sports analysts and former drivers Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon sighed and scoffed on the air.

In all, the weekend saw upwards of nine crashes between NASCAR’s three national series that were substantial enough to justify use of the restrictor plate term ‘Big One’. Nearly every vehicle that competed on the 2.5-mile Daytona Beach, Florida oval saw damage, with nearly half of each field eliminated early by crashes.

Still, despite all of the destruction, the ending was fantastic.

Worth the Wait

With so many contenders out, a host of grizzled veterans and up-and-comers dueled for Daytona glory. At one point in the closing laps, the top 12 drivers were all in search of their first Daytona 500 triumph.

All of the carnage ensued in a short time period, with six cautions taking place within laps 106-153. That left 47 laps for the field to fight and flaw to the finish.

And boy, did they.

The late laps saw multiple close calls. At one point Aric Almirola nearly crashed in Turn 2. Martin Truex, Jr., made a tremendous save less than half a lap later.

With so much damage to the competing cars, the remaining field in the Daytona 500 limped around in a chorus of aero-deficiency, offering many unexpected shoes a chance at the season-opening dream.

The final laps saw Elliott leading a single-file pack, but when the field began to bunch up and make moves Elliott was sent backwards by fuel mileage woes.

Those same mileage issues claimed a few other contenders, as Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson were sent sailing to the back as if a parachute were laid out behind them.

Through the madness, perhaps the most unexpected contender of all arose – Kurt Busch.

A 2004 MENCS champion, Busch has come within arms reach of a win in the Daytona 500 multiple times. However, before Sunday a win hadn’t just eluded him in the Great American Race – in fact, the Nevadan hadn’t won a single points-paying restrictor plate event.

So, naturally, when bedlam began, it was Busch that battled through the field to claim the biggest win of his 17-year Cup series career.

Battered and beaten, Busch brought his No. 41 Ford down into the infield, where he proceeded to lay donuts down on the signature ‘Daytona’ logo that fills the grass in the infield trivial. He stopped on the ‘O’ – the same area legends such as Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson have visited over the years – and emerged from his machine among pats and praise from his race-winning crew.

Moments later, with the celebration complete, Busch climbed back into his Ford and tried to drive it to victory lane, only to realize he’d maneuvered the machine to the wrong garage entrance. The Daytona 500 champion was forced to turn his car around before ultimately arriving at the location he sought most.

That single moment encapsulated Busch’s luck at plate tracks over his career, and it also proved symbolic for Monster Energy’s first week as the Cup Series presenting sponsor.

It wasn’t pretty, and they’re not really sure how they did it. But somehow, some way, they came out of the weekend with success.

One Comment

  1. Rajna Savnde

    February 27, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    It was a pretty bad weekend. Doesn’t portend well for this new format. Especially the 5 minute rule and no chance to fix your car in the garage. That’s just adding insult to injury. Not a good fan experience at all.

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