ON NASCAR: 21 Forever: NASCAR Heads Back To The Future In Wood Brothers Time Machine

By Cathy Elliott
ON NASCAR: 21 Forever: NASCAR Heads Back To The Future In Wood Brothers Time Machine
“ … The slow one now will later be fast/As the present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’. – Bob Dylan

To say we enjoyed an entertaining Speedweeks 2011 could well turn out to be the understatement of the season. Granted, it’s early yet, but the first races have most certainly set the bar awfully high.

It is my great pleasure and privilege to be a regular co-host on a couple of local radio sports talk programs. We preview – and review – the races, discuss penalties and press releases, and make predictions for the upcoming weekend. I like it because it gives me an opportunity to talk about my favorite sport, and the listeners like it because it gives them an opportunity to tell me I “don’t know squat” about my favorite sport.

One opinion I threw out there during the very first show of the New Year has turned out to be particularly unpopular. On that day, all the on-air types made our predictions for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field, and named our choice for the champion.

Everyone else’s Chase list looked pretty much like it always does, but mine included a couple of curve balls; in fact, a couple of people seemed so knocked out by them, they were received more like beanballs. Apparently the omission of a couple of specific names on certain lists can cause an actual concussion. My list has met with mixed reviews, but it’s my basic premise that is setting many a tooth on edge.

I believe 2011 will be a transition year in NASCAR, when we see some of our heroes begin to phase out a bit while younger drivers gain more of a foothold. Think about it; Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart will both turn 40 this year. Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann have already celebrated their 4.0 events, and Mark Martin continues to blow the curve at age 52.

I’m not saying your favorite driver (or mine) is a has-been and will never again contend for a championship. NASCAR drivers, after all, have much longer careers than athletes in other sports and can remain competitive well past the age when others are forced to retire. I held on to Rusty Wallace so tightly he probably still has bruises. I would love to see Stewart win a championship as a driver/owner, and for Gordon to get that elusive fifth title. No one would be disappointed with a Burton championship, and for Martin to win after coming so close so many times would truly be a magical moment.

But at some point we have to be realistic. Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and a host of other would-be, and probably will-be, champions are lined up, ready and waiting. I’m told that Jimmie Johnson guy shows some promise. And if there’s one thing we know about NASCAR drivers, it is that they don’t like to be behind anybody or anything, ever. The problem as I see it is that we’re going to run out of time before every driver on the track can achieve his goal.

We saw our established favorites excel at Daytona. Kurt Busch won the Budweiser Shootout, and Stewart won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race for the third consecutive year. Perennially popular Jeff Burton won his Gatorade Duel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 pole, and Michael Waltrip won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the 10th anniversary of both his first Daytona 500 win and Dale Earnhardt’s death.

But we saw some other, less familiar things, too. Jennifer Jo Cobb’s 6th-place finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race made her the highest-finishing female driver in any NASCAR event at Daytona. The next day, in the Nationwide Series event, Danica Patrick became the first women ever to lead one of NASCAR’s national series races at Daytona.

And after being scoffed at from early January through mid-February, I have to give a shout-out to Trevor Bayne for going down to Florida and becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Daytona 500. Granted, Bayne isn’t contending for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this year, but he made my point better than I ever could, on the sport’s greatest stage.

One of the coolest things about this victory was the car itself. The famous No. 21, owned by the Wood Brothers and driven into history and the NASCAR Hall of Fame by David Pearson, sported a retro paint scheme from the team’s glory days. The Wood Brothers plan to keep that paint scheme on the car for every race in which it is entered this season. Pearson said in an interview that gesture meant as much to him as being voted into the HOF.

But the guy that climbed out of the No. 21 in Victory Lane was not David Pearson. It was 20-year-old Trevor Bayne. While the car gave us a grand and nostalgic view of NASCAR’s past, at the same time it showed us what lies ahead. The future looks fresh, and exciting, and it’s time to get ready … because it’s rapidly headed our way.
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