Racing's conspiracy theorists are at it again, hinting that the fix might have been in for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s emotional win in Sunday's Daytona 500, on the anniversary of his father's only victory in the Great American Race. Some have believed for years that NASCAR occurrences are sometimes just too perfect to be real.
First on the list is Richard Petty's 200th win on July 4, 1984, with President Ronald Reagan in attendance. Petty had been campaigning for Reagan in North Carolina and after the race went to the president's suite to celebrate.
What really fueled the rumor, though, was Cale Yarborough, after a fender-to-fender duel with Petty over the final laps, apparently making a mental error by going down pit road on the final lap, thinking the race was over. By the time he recovered, Petty had won and Yarborough was third.
It didn't help that in 242 more races, Petty never won again.
In 1998, there was the late Dale Earnhardt's only Daytona 500 win, in his 20th attempt after a slew of heartbreaking losses. At 46, he had won 33 other races on his favorite track, but never the big one. The conspiracy crowd noted that no one had seriously challenged his black No. 3 Chevrolet over the final 60 laps.
More eyebrows were raised after the Pepsi 400 at Daytona on July 7, 2001, when Junior won in his first race on the Daytona track where his father had been killed six months earlier. Conspiracy theorists, noting that young Earnhardt had never won before, considered the circumstances too perfect to be real.
Some even claim that as far back as the 1979 Daytona 500, the last-lap crash involving Yarborough and Donnie Allison and the ensuing infield fight, with Bobby Allison challenging Yarborough, were staged. Why? Because it was the first time the 500 had been on national TV and because a blizzard kept people at home across much of the country, it was seen by record numbers of people, many of whom barely knew what NASCAR was until then.
Now the conspiracy crowd is at it again, fueled in part by Tony Stewart's almost giddy reaction after finishing second, lavishly praising the winner, claiming they had worked together all race and he had never felt better about finishing second -- uncharacteristic Stewart emotions.
A reporter in a teleconference call Monday asked Dale Jr. how he felt about some fans believing his victory, and the one in 2001, had been scripted.
"I think [my fans] know better," he said. "I think it's a shame that people don't have anything better to do. But I guess you'll have that with anything anytime somebody succeeds with anything.
"There are going to be some doubters and some people that criticize it, no matter what. Some people just can't leave well enough alone and enjoy their own life. They've got to try to mess with somebody else's. I get upset about it, but there isn't much I can do about it, except to keep on winning and keep on enjoying my own life."
Later, on Dave Despain's Speed Channel show, a viewer broached the subject in an e-mail to the program.
"I'm glad you [identified him], so all his buddies can get on him for being a fool," Earnhardt responded. "If he's that concerned, he can come down and watch our car go through the same inspection everyone else's did. Otherwise, he can sit home on the couch and enjoy it."
Conspiracy theories sometimes come from the inside.
One former car owner, whose cars won in Winston Cup racing, claimed that, from time to time, teams would get "the call," word from NASCAR headquarters that in a selected race or two, their cars would not receive the same stringent inspection as the others. In other words, they could beef up the size of their engines without fear of reprisal.
The reasoning was that NASCAR believed that if certain teams, or drivers, won, it would be good for the sport. After all, as one racing publicist said, "It is show business, you know."
The conspiracy theories may be bothersome but they remain only theories. Of more immediate concern to NASCAR should be something more concrete: the dwindling number of cars at Nextel Cup races.
There were only 45 at Daytona, the fewest in memory for the 500. With only two cars not going to make the 43-car starting grid, the twin 125 qualifying races lost much of their excitement. For years, many fans considered the 125s more exciting than the 500 because of all the action around the 14th and 15th places, where drivers were scrambling to make the race.
Just making it assures a big paycheck. Mark Martin collected $216,997 for finishing 43rd last Sunday.
The situation is no better this week at Rockingham, N.C., where 45 are entered for the Subway 400.
Although there is nothing in the rule book that says there must be 43 cars starting a race, that number has been widely accepted as official since 1998. Other than for a postponed race, the last time there were fewer than 43 starters was July 21, 1996, at Pocono, Pa.
The main reason for the shortfall is the high cost of fielding a competitive car.
The accepted price tag is $20 million, which can be a pretty big chunk of a marketing budget for even a Fortune 500 corporation.
Brian France, head of NASCAR's family-owned business, touched on the subject during a conversation in Daytona.
"It would be nice to have more cars, but there is a dark side to having too many," he said. "With costs the way they are, no sponsor wants to see his car on the hauler Friday afternoon. There is a balance we need to keep, and right now we are right on the line.
"The quality of our competition is more important than quantity, and there is no arguing that the competition is as good as it has ever been. I think we've got the quality part perfect."
Junior's Last Laps
Earnhardt after winning last Sunday: "Those last five laps at Daytona, I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat under a rocking chair."
Many of the world's fastest vehicles are being featured at the Petersen Automotive Museum in an exhibit called "Speed: The World's Fastest Cars." The exhibit, which will continue through June 11, includes the Vesco Turbinator, a land-speed-record car built by Hall of Fame driver Don Vesco that was clocked at 458 mph in 2001.
Other cars on display include Art Arfons' Green Monster, which set LSRs in the mid '60s; Tom Beatty's Belly Tank, one version of the machines built shortly after World War II from surplus fuel tanks for military aircraft, and Ron Main's Flatfire, the world's fastest Ford flathead-powered vehicle.
Perris Auto Speedway will open its season Saturday night with five divisions -- super stocks, street stocks, trucks, hornets and cruisers -- on the program. The first race will begin at 6.
The World of Outlaws sprint cars will make their only Southland appearance Feb. 28 on Perris' half-mile dirt oval. Steve Kinser will be opening his bid for a 19th series championship.
Team Kawasaki's James "Bubba" Stewart, the teenage supercross phenom from Florida, can tie seven-time national champion Jeremy McGrath's record of 13 victories in the 125cc class with a win Saturday night in Aurora, Ill. Stewart, 18, has won 12 times.
Irwindale Speedway is busy preparing for an invasion of a band of Japanese drifters.
The opening round of the D1 Grand Prix for drifting is scheduled Feb. 28 inside the track. The rest of the schedule will be held in Japan.
Youichi Imamura, 2003 D1 Grand Prix champion, and Katsuiro Ueo, winner of an exhibition at Irwindale last year, will compete against 27 other Japanese professionals and some American hopefuls. Among the top Americans are Rhys Millen of Newport Beach and Chris Forsberg of Long Beach.
NASCAR NEXTEL CUP
* Site: Rockingham, N.C.
* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, noon); Sunday, race (Channel 11, 10 a.m.).
* Where: North Carolina Speedway (tri-oval, 1.017 miles, 22 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 25 degrees in turns 3-4); Rockingham, N.C.
* Race distance: 400 miles, 393 laps.
* 2003 winner: Dale Jarrett.
* Next race: UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400, March 7, Las Vegas
Goody's Headache Powder 200
* Site: Rockingham, N.C.
* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 10:30 a.m.); Saturday, race (FX, 10 a.m.).
* Where: North Carolina Speedway.
* Race distance: 200 miles, 197 laps.
* 2003 winner: Jamie McMurray.
* Next race: Sam's Town 300, March 6, Las Vegas.