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NASCAR's Great American Folly

This year marked the 50th Anniversary of "The Great American Race" in Daytona Beach, Florida, NASCAR's season-starter. Fox Sports has the TV rights for this event, and does a generally decent job of covering the race itself (handling it better than their efforts on baseball, but not as good as their football coverage).

But the race itself was almost beside the point this year as two story lines dominated the pre-race coverage: Junior, and the 50th Anniversary.

For the uninitiated, "Junior" is Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of the late Dale Earnhardt and one of NASCAR's biggest names. Last season, he split from his father's old team in a nasty spat with his stepmother, Dale Sr's widow, who inherited the company after Senior was killed in a racing accident. He went from driving a red #8 Chevy to a green and white #88 Chevy in joining a racing team that already featured Jeff Gordon. I frankly lost track of the number of stories featuring or at least mentioning Dale Jr.

The network gave a nod to 50 years of race history in various flashbacks to years past, a decade at a time, each with a different cheesy outfit on its race announcer, Mike Joy, using lingo hip to that particular decade. Only a long-time race fan would have gotten anything from the quickie clips, however, showing just a second or two of footage from one or two races during that decade, giving just a flash view of changes in the cars' appearances over the years.

Better were the interviews with some of the older drivers. Two stood out here. One included both Jeff Gordon and Cale Yarborough, in which Gordon essentially took over the interview of Yarborough. You could tell the young star had true respect and admiration for the old star and really wanted to get to know something about him and the "old days." Another was a roundtable which also involved Yarborough and others involved in the first live TV broadcast of the race (1979), which also featured a famous infield fight between Yarborough and Donnie Allison following a last-lap wreck. The broadcast could have used more of that.

Saving the best for last, however, NASCAR topped the NFL in selecting "WHO'S PLAYING?!" artists for its pre-race concert.

First up, Chubby Checker, doing "The Twist." OK. "I get it," I thought, "they're doing kind of a historic flashback." But Checker was obviously lip-synching, and instead of following the conceit with a full band, they had a lone guitar player faking it behind him (who looked oddly like Ric Ocasek from The Cars, which I suppose would have been a nice ironic touch). I suggested to my wife that he was really a paramedic, standing close just in case Chubby fell out while trying to re-create his signature dance moves.

Next, Michael McDonald, playing one of the worst Doobie Brothers tunes - "Takin' It To The Streets" - but at least seeming to play it live. (Or at least doing a much better job of faking it, and at least having a full band to sell it.) Lame, but not offensively so.

And then, here comes Kool & The Gang doing "Celebration!" Huh? Yeah, nothing says NASCAR like Kool & the Gang. And it kind of blew the whole "historical progression" of music theme, too, since that and the previous number were only four years apart. And again, back to complete lip-synching. (And who knows how many original "Gang" members were up there.)

For the finale, NASCAR finally went with an act that seemed to fit the occasion: Brooks & Dunn. They were good. Appropriate. Only one question: Why weren't they the only act?

Then the gentlemen started their engines and drove around the track 200 times. If you're a race fan, you watched it and nothing I can say can add to that. If you're not, that one sentence pretty much sums it up.

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See additional Daytona commentary by Jim Coffman and Eric Emery, each of whom also noticed some incongruities to the festivities.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021