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When bump-n-grind is what you need

It was a show ‘Big Bill’ would’ve loved.

William Henry Getty France, Sr., or ‘Big Bill’ to the stock-car racing world, loved a good show at the race track. That’s what his youngest son, Jim, now the head of NASCAR, wanted – even calling for it from his drivers even before the first flag dropped.

Every time they race at the ‘World Center of Racing’ in February, I remind myself of the ominous words of Dale Earnhardt just before the Daytona 500 race in 2001 that would claim his life:

“You’re going to see something today like you’ve never seen before,” the Intimidator had declared.

Eighteen years later, and thankfully, with no tragedy to mar the occasion, fans of slam, bam, rock ‘em, sock ‘em stock car racing got just what they paid, or tuned in, for.

They got a Daytona 500 race that packed an unforeseen punch that, if nothing else was at least entertaining; and what made it so…!?!

Wrecks, and plenty of ‘em.

The final 20 laps are the portion of the action which Kyle Busch once famously described as when “brains come unglued”. And the way this one looked in those last laps, no epoxy could have figuratively held any driver’s grey matter together.

Those crashes led to nearly 40 minutes of delays under caution for cleanup. While Denny Hamlin’s claim of the stoppage taking so long that he fell asleep twice in his Toyota, he was certainly wide awake for the finish.

This was a finish that was 1-2-3 for Joe Gibbs racing, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for everyone in the former Redskins coach’s camp. It was a tribute that honored team co-founder, and son, J.D. Gibbs following his death last month from a battle with a degenerative neurological disease.

J.D. ran the team when the elder Gibbs went back to “Fight for ol’ DC” with a second stint as head coach in Washington. And J.D. was also a ‘do-it-all’: a driver, tire changer, team owner, and a talent scout. One with good enough instincts to discover a scuffling short track and truck racer out of Virginia who now has not one, but two, Daytona 500 trophies to brag about.

Interestingly, Gibbs now owns three Super Bowl victories and three wins in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.

Since taking over from his nephew Brian back in the summer, Jim France used the driver’s meeting before the race to exhort the whole 40-car field to get up on the wheel, stand on it, and race. And after three boring exhibition races, he needed a spark plug.

“I hope a few of you (drivers) out there will get down on the bottom and put on a good show today,” France had said.

Whatever that “locker-room fire-em-up speech” was supposed to mean, it must have worked. Those guys raced hard from when the green flag dropped. They ended up tearing up a couple million dollars’ worth of race cars and putting on one heckuva show.

For a sport that needed a kick in the TV ratings much like the drivers needed that pre-race talk from France, the overnight numbers on FOX were up eight percent from last year’s record low. And once again they beat out the NBA All-Star Game for the top-rated sports event of the weekend.

I don’t know if this great start – drama included – translates as a re-birth of the sport, but if it is, and it does, then it took getting back to what fans love to see – rubbin’ and wreckin’ – to get it going. We’ll find out beginning this weekend when things move to a tamer track in Atlanta.

But, race fans, let’s hope it holds from the Florida start (Daytona) all the way to the Florida finish (Homestead).

 Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.