Among all the Daytona 500s run in the race’s history, the 2000 edition of the race is the red-headed stepchild.
Most Daytona 500s elicit vivid memories of some of the defining moments in NASCAR history: Richard Petty and David Pearson crashing coming to the checkered flag in ’76, Dale Earnhardt finally triumphing in his 20th try in ’98, Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin racing each other to the line as the field disappeared in smoke behind them in ’07.
And then, there’s the 2000 race, of which little is discussed: Besides the whole affair being as dull a Daytona 500 as was ever run.
Anyone who will call the 2000 Daytona 500 a “boring” race will be backed up by both the tape and the record books. Of the nine recorded lead changes in the race, only four took place on the racetrack. Single file racing dominated the day. A select few drivers monopolized the front few spots.
In spite of the infamy of the race among anyone who was subject to it, still it remains a part of the history of the Daytona 500 like a faded acne scar from an especially unsightly pimple. As such, it must be documented for its flaws and its fallout – And for its impact on its era of superspeedway racing and the history of NASCAR as a whole.
There were two major contributors to the trouble with Speedweeks 2000. The first, and most significant, were new shock absorber rules by NASCAR requiring standard shocks and springs for all Winston Cup cars in order to help limit costs, increase driver comfort, and ultimately slow the cars down in the name of safety. The second was a complete re-design of Chevrolet’s Monte Carlo for 2000 and a partial re-design of the Ford Taurus.
The rule changes had two consequences that doomed the racing product. For one, the shock absorber rules severely handicapped the ability of crew chiefs to adjust on their cars, as only minor adjustments could be made. In addition, the cars became difficult to turn, reducing on-throttle time in the corners. For another, the changes to the cars left the Chevrolet and Pontiac teams at an aerodynamic disadvantage compared to the Ford teams. This was reflected in time-trial qualifying, as six of the top ten qualifiers and the entire top three – Dale Jarrett first, Ricky Rudd second, and Bill Elliott third – were Fords.
Based on the wild finish to the Budweiser Shootout, which featured two lead changes in the final half a lap and Rudd finishing the race on his roof, there was some hope that the racing would not be too dis-similar to what was seen in the 90s. That hope was quickly vanquished by the Twin 125-mile qualifying races: The only pass for the lead came on the very first lap of the first race, as Elliott took command of the race and led wire-to-wire. In the second race, Ricky Rudd would lead from green-to-checkered in a race that featured no passes among the top three cars.
After the Twin 125s, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was irate.
“That’s the worst racing that I’ve seen at Daytona in a long, long time,” said Earnhardt. “They took NASCAR Winston Cup Racing and made it some of the sorriest racing. They took racing out of the drivers’ and the crews’ hands…We can’t adjust, we can’t make our cars drive like we want. They just killed the racing at Daytona.
“Mr. Bill France Sr. probably roll over in his grave if he seen that deal!”, added Earnhardt.
Earnhardt’s teammate, Mike Skinner, was equally critical of the racing.
“I heard a lot of people snoring up there [in the grandstands],” said Skinner. “You can’t pass. No matter who was in the front, they probably couldn’t have been passed. We have to get back to side-by-side racing.”
Skinner’s crew chief, Larry McReynolds, had perhaps the most poignant quote: “At Talladega last race [in 1999], you didn’t even need seats up in the grandstand because the people didn’t use them. You needed cots up there today because people wanted to go to sleep.”
In spite of the complaints, NASCAR did not hit the panic button, and the Ford drivers chalked up the nature of the qualifying races to simply self-preservation.
“I think you need to see 500 miles before you jump to any conclusions,” said Rudd. “It’s the Daytona 500 and I think you’ll see an exciting race,”
“I wasn’t going to take any chances [to try and pass] if I didn’t need to,” said Jarrett.
“One of the things that we’re concerned about is not creating a moving target so that six days’ worth of Daytona 500 practice gets changed on the competitors,” said NASCAR President Mike Helton. “On top to the fact that we’re not convinced that any change we would make right now is necessary.
“I’ve got a good feeling that running 500 miles for a $9.3 million purse will change [the racing],” continued Helton. “The Daytona 500 will be a good race.”
The prestige of the Daytona 500, however, did not change the racing. From the drop of the green flag, the racing settled into the same style of single-file, follow-the-leader competition that was seen in the Twin 125s. The Ford teams, led by Jarrett and Mark Martin, held a stranglehold on the front.
In spite of the racing, however, the 2000 Daytona 500 did have a chance to be a memorable one. On Lap 158, Johnny Benson – A castoff after a failed stint with Roush Racing who came to Daytona with no sponsor for his Tyler Jet Motorsports Pontiac (The team found a season-long sponsor in Lycos.com the night before the 500) – took the lead, and held it throughout the closing stages of the race. With less than ten laps to go and the field still unable to pass the leader, it looked like Benson was on his way from pulling a remarkable upset.
Those hopes were dashed when a multi-car crash on Lap 193 set up a late-race restart with four laps to go. With a train of Fords behind him, led by the fastest car of Speedweeks in Dale Jarrett, Benson was ganged up on on the final restart, and put in the sucker hole all the way back to 12th place at the finish.
Appropriately, the race would end under caution after Jimmy Spencer crashed with two laps to go. resulting in no contest for Jarrett’s third victory in the Daytona 500.
In the immediate aftermath of the race, NASCAR responded to the complaints over the racing product by impounding three cars (Jarrett’s Ford, Skinner’s Chevrolet, and the Pontiac of 8th-place finisher Ward Burton) to be sent for Wind Tunnel tests. Jarrett, the obvious beneficiary of the racing, understood.
“From a driver’s standpoint, it’s a lot easier racing because we’re not threewide, side-by-side all the time,” Jarrett said the day after the 500. “But we understand that these fans pay to see that kind of racing. I think there’s some things we can do with these cars to make them better. … We’ve got this sport to the highest level right now and we don’t need to take away from that.”
While April’s DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway would be a much more competitive race with 27 lead changes, July’s return trip to Daytona would be more of the same: A ho-hum affair dominated by Fords that only featured ten lead changes. As a result, when the Winston Cup Series convened at Talladega in October for the Winston 500, NASCAR both increased horsepower and introduced a “wicker bill” to be placed on both the rear spoiler and the roof of the car in order to create a bigger “hole” in the air in order to increase passing.
The result was an instant classic, which featured 49 lead changes and Dale Earnhardt charging from mid-pack to the lead in the final laps to claim his 76th and final Winston Cup victory. The next year, two more all-time classics in the 2001 Daytona 500 and 2001 Pepsi 400 would ensue under the aerodynamic rules, as well as two extremely competitive races at Talladega.
Ultimately, the 2000 Daytona 500 ultimately turned out to be an important one in the history of NASCAR racing, because it directly resulted in some of the greatest and most significant races ever run. The scenes that transpired on superspeedways at the end of 2000 and in 2001 – Earnhardt’s final victory, Michael Waltrip’s first, Bobby Hamilton’s triumph in a Talladega race that saw cars four and five-abreast coming to the finish, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the first race at Daytona after his father’s death at the track – all came to be because of the lessons learned from the “boring” 2000 Daytona 500.
In all, few who witnessed Daytona Y2K will say that they were enthralled by the experience. However, they have a lot of incredible racing and important moments to thank it for.