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Craig Murto: Florida Speedweeks thrilled fans

Craig Murto

Race fans can be a fickle lot, but they have to be satisfied with the action they got all over the state of Florida during Speedweeks 2018.

The racing action wasn’t exclusive to Daytona. On the dirt, Sprint Cars, Modifieds and Late Models thrilled fans at East Bay Raceway Park near Tampa, Bubba Raceway Park near Ocala, and at Barberville’s Volusia Speedway Park.

And just south of Daytona, New Smyrna Speedway Hosted its annual World Series of Asphalt Racing, which included the story of greatest local interest when 17-year-old Manassas-based racer Mason Diaz out-raced former NASCAR star Mike Skinner for a 100-lap Pro Late Model victory.

The good news at all the short tracks was that car counts were up in a lot of divisions, and fans were in the stands. In fact, Sunday’s running of the 60th Annual Daytona 500 was sold out, and the 100,000-plus in attendance got the thrilling race they paid to see.

The racing on the big track was aggressive all week. Even the Can-Am Duels, predicted by many to be lackluster as every Cup car was guaranteed to be in the show, were exciting races. Maybe it was the stage points the races awarded, or the fact that racers are racers and once they strap on their helmets all they know to do is race.

In the Xfinity Series race, Tyler Reddick just beat Elliott Sadler at the line to score his second series win. The margin of victory was clocked at 0.000, making it the closest victory in any of NASCAR’s national touring series.

But it seemed they didn’t want to finish the race, as it took five overtime periods before the checkered flag waved.

The problem all week was that there were so many aggressive moves and so much blocking. And it spilled into the Daytona 500.

Austin Dillon won the 500, his second Cup win, but only after Aric Almirola spun and crashed off the nose of Dillon’s No. 3 Richard Childress Chevrolet. It was 20 years ago that the late Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 3 to victory in the 500.

Immediately after the race, social media lit up with fans bashing Dillon for “dumping” Almirola. In reality, Dillon did absolutely nothing wrong.

Heading down the backstretch on the final lap, Almirola got so far out in front of the field that Dillon was able to get a push from eventual runner-up Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr. and rapidly closed the gap. Almirola changed lanes to block and got hit.

There was nothing else Dillon could have done. The cars don’t turn on a dime at 200 mph. Plus, if he gets off the gas, he gives up his only chance to take the win and gets run over from behind.

Even Almirola admitted to journalists after the race that he blocked, and that he would have done the exact same thing Dillon did under the same circumstances. Although brokenhearted that he led at the white flag but wound up in the infield care center instead of Victory Lane, he understood that his actions had much to do with the outcome.

And Almirola was right to throw a block. It was the last lap and his job was to protect the lead. If his car didn’t get turned when struck from behind, he may have won. The block he threw was his last chance. The incident was just a product of this form of racing; nobody did anything wrong.

But what put a dent in the wallets of car owners up and down pit road is the fact that the aggression usually saved for the end of the race was present not only all day but all week. The question is why.

It’s not just because the cars were difficult to drive. That was the same for everybody. And you’d think it would make the racers more careful in order to protect their equipment until the end.

Was the aggression because we have a lot of younger racers hoping to make a name for themselves? Maybe. But veteran racers were extremely aggressive as well. Were they feeling the need to assert their dominance? That’s possible, too. Or maybe they feel the need to prove they still belong. After all, Matt Kenseth won a race last year, but he’s no longer driving as his ride was given to upstart Erik Jones.

NASCAR goes to Atlanta next. We’ll see how the racing is there. Hopefully, the fans in Georgia will be as thrilled as the fans in Florida.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.

 

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