DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- At the outset of a season in which NASCAR is altering its racing format by radical surgery, there was plenty of satisfying tradition to be found in the Thursday night qualifying races that determine the starting order for the Daytona 500.
Chase Elliott won his qualifying race just as his father, Awesome Bill, did 17 years ago, and he will start the 500 from the pole as a contender to win it at the tender age of 21.
In the second qualifying race, it appeared Dale Earnhardt Jr., running his first race since sitting out the second half of the season last year due to concussion symptoms, might return in fine style and re-establish himself as one of the kings of Daytona. That would have been B-I-G in terms of a return to familiar drama and fan response. But then along came the Toyota of last year's Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin, who unseated Earnhardt by drafting past while entering the final lap.
However, the biggest revival of tradition came when an unheralded racer from Canada named D.J. Kennington realized a life-long dream by driving his way into the starting field with a bold up-the-middle move in Turn 4 on the last lap of the second race. All this after rain canceled practice and he drove a NASCAR Cup car in the draft for the first time at Daytona when the green flag waved.
There was no family connection, no NASCAR backing designed to funnel new talent along, only a long-running sponsorship deal with a Castrol distributor in Canada and a car owner, Marty Gaunt, who believed in Kennington and had the same dream. There were also many days and nights on the short tracks of Canada, where Kennington won the championship sanctioned by NASCAR in 2010 and 2012. Basically, it's a minor league circuit in a country that prefers cars without fenders such as Formula 1.
On the last lap, spotter Robby Benton told Kennington that he needed to pass the car of Elliott Sadler to make it into the world's biggest stock car race.
"Do what you gotta do," Benton told him.
Kennington took the only available avenue and got into the Daytona 500 for the first time at the age of 39.
"I knew what I had to do," Kennington said. "I didn't know how to get there."
He chose the usually hazardous middle lane -- his only option -- and found himself rocketing ahead of Sadler by half a car length at the finish line.
"It's just an unbelievable for a small team like us," said Kennington, whose car was built by a handful of crew members at a shop borrowed from Benton. "Never being in one of these cars, never drafting out here before, it was a pretty big deal for me, a lot of learning."
It was the stuff of sports dreams, finally making it to the majors, the Final Four or the Super Bowl -- without any practice. And it was the sort of eight-day saga that only happens in Daytona's complicated qualifying format -- one that has largely gone missing in recent years.
Perhaps Kennington's story, which is bound to receive ample play prior to what's branded as "The Great American Race," is a harbinger for NASCAR, which is trying to beat slipping TV ratings and a decline in attendance. Without the complicated qualifying format, the drama of the Canadian's sudden arrival wouldn't have happened. He would have failed to qualify on speed without a second chance.
In effect, this year NASCAR will start including two qualifying races in each of its 36 races, a radical change that it hopes will generate more interest.
That alteration of tradition will begin on Sunday when the unprecedented new rules literally take the stage. The race will have two 60-lap stages, each paying championship points to the top 10 finishers, and then will finish with an 80-lap stage concluded by the checkered flag. The remaining 35 races will also be run in stages.
The idea is to generate more reasons for fans to watch a race that will have three contested runs to the flag stand instead of the traditional method of assigning points only at the final checkered flag. Those points could determine who makes the playoffs at year's end, a 10-race showdown that has been in place since 2004. Also, there are bonus playoff points at stake that could help determine who wins the championship playoffs.
The consensus is that the first two stages will generate a lot of different fuel and tire strategies, which will add elements of complication and intrigue to how the final run to the checkered flag turns out. The crew chiefs, rather than the drivers, will be the ones on the spot when it comes to choosing strategies on whether to try to win stages or get to the checkered flag first -- or both.
It is anticipated that drivers will be less on the spot and avoid contact at the finish of the first two stages -- saving the "have at it" contact for the end of races. In that light, there is not likely to be more than one slam-bang finish per race. The idea is to mix up strategies to generate more changes at the front as the race develops.
The Daytona 500 has always been NASCAR's biggest race from the day the first one in 1959 required a photo finish. Due to its location in the schedule after the Super Bowl and before March Madness begins and the major leagues get out of Florida and Arizona, the race has long generated excellent TV ratings -- even in Winter Olympics years. So perhaps the new format won't be tested until the teams get to Atlanta, then Las Vegas and beyond.
Short term, Kennington's result was a reminder that NASCAR, like any sport, is about characters whose stories resonate with fans and the media. NASCAR has plenty of compelling characters -- despite the recent losses of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart to retirement and Carl Edwards to at least a one-year hiatus. Whether the new format does a better job of showcasing these high-speed athletes remains to be seen.