|SOURCE: Phoenix Racing Twitter - @PhoenixRacing51|
This weekend at Daytona, Phoenix Racing has cars in both the Cup and Nationwide races. Each car carries a special paint scheme that harkens back to NASCAR’s boom in the early 1990s, the time period when owner James Finch’s fledgling organization made its first few starts.
On Friday, Kurt Busch will run a green-and-yellow #1 Chevrolet. The car is reminiscent of the #46 City Chevrolet machine driven by Tom Cruise’s character Cole Trickle in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder.” The Phoenix team has even gone to the extreme of putting together a hilarious video with Rick Hendrick where they recite quotes from the film. It’s mandatory viewing before the race - especially if you’re listening to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack when you do.
On Saturday, A.J. Allmendinger will climb behind the wheel of the pink-and-yellow #51 Phoenix Construction Chevrolet, a car with much more somber significance. It was in a similarly-colored #51 Country Time Chevrolet that, on February 11, 1994, NASCAR legend Neil Bonnett lost his life in a crash while practicing for the Daytona 500. We saw this paint job run earlier this season in the Nationwide race at Talladega, where Kurt Busch led on the final lap before a last-second slingshot move slipped him back to 4th.
And, as I pointed out, ESPN completely failed in their journalistic duty to discuss that Bonnett car in a mature and respectful manner.
Just three days after ESPN’s flub, it was announced that Finch will sell both of his NASCAR teams. Finch’s final race as owner of the #51 will be the July 28 race at Indianapolis, which is now just twenty-three days away. Although it now appears the team will be sold to a new owner instead of closed, Finch’s impending exit adds yet more significance to his two cars running this weekend.
This weekend will be Finch’s final appearance as a car owner for a restrictor-plate race. It is significant because it is likely the last best chance Finch will have to hoist another NASCAR trophy.
The events at Daytona and Talladega have long been the team’s best, and this year's have been their greatest of all. Back in February, Regan Smith finished 7th in the Daytona 500, one day after his Finch-owned Nationwide car was crashed out of the lead within sight of the checkers. Smith followed this up with a 6th-place finish for Finch in the Aaron’s 499, one day after he slipped past Busch’s Finch car for the Nationwide win.
Make no mistake, ESPN and TNT - with Allmendinger topping the speed charts in Friday’s opening Cup practice, and with Kurt Busch running Top Ten in both Nationwide sessions, Finch’s cars can not only win, but could very well sweep the weekend.
You’re going to have to talk about them.
And this time, you had better get it right.
You better get it right because the stakes are even higher than they were in May.
This isn’t just about honoring the life of Neil Bonnett anymore - it’s also about honoring Finch himself and all that he, too, has given to this sport for more than two decades. And, in turn, it’s about saluting what has made this sport great - the personalities who, like Finch, built a professional team from the ground up, and like Bonnett, who drove for such teams with everything they had.
This isn’t simply a suggestion or a request. It is an ultimatum.
It doesn’t need to be an all-consuming thing. A segment, a series of clips, or the sharing of a memories will work just fine. Maybe something like SPEED did for Dick Trickle during the All-Star Race or the beautiful tribute NASCAR’s videographer did for Jason Leffler.
But I better not hear another one-liner about that #51 looking silly. Because if these networks - the commentators, producers, and the rest of their television crews - continue to treat NASCAR history as rudely and carelessly as ESPN did in May, they will someday find themselves in darkened press boxes above desolated grandstands.
Because there’s more fans like me than you think.