The star of the 2010 Daytona 500 was a pothole on the track. Officials tried everything to fill the hole, including glue, duct tape and prayer. But the hole dominated the race. The pothole wasn't the only reason NASCAR experienced low television ratings and attendance last season. But it contributed. The 500 is the sport's biggest race and the race was a joke. Momentum never arrived.
The star of the 2011 Daytona 500 was Trevor Bayne, whom you had not heard of until late Sunday. Bayne, 20, somehow won the race. So there was no usual NASCAR suspect, no business as usual. Even peripheral fans can get excited about a newcomer. We like our underdogs.
A sport can't thrive unless it engages peripheral fans. You think the NFL's outrageous success is due to football junkies? Millions of people that have never caught a pass or thrown one are mesmerized by the league's adventures. They don't live for it. But they don't live without it.
Tony Kornheiser of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" gave NASCAR a huge boost with peripheral fans last week when he implied that qualifying might have been "a setup."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won 500 qualifying. Should his car have passed inspection?
Dale Earnhardt died 10 years ago at the 500, and what a warm and wonderful story it would be if his son won the pole and perhaps the race.
NASCAR angrily denounced Kornheiser as did the usual array of apologists who jump up and defend the sport every time anybody criticizes it, whether it's a newspaper columnist or a 7-year-old on a school playground.
Darrell Waltrip of FOX Sports even questioned Kornheiser's intelligence. I've talked to both men and if they were to take an IQ test I assure you one of them would be lapped.
But Kornheiser's criticism was great for NASCAR, and NASCAR knows this. NASCAR's outlaw, moonshine running, anything-to-go-faster roots have great appeal.
You don't need to like NASCAR to like controversy. Everybody can relate to cheatin'.
Kornheiser generated almost as much attention as Bayne did.
I have no idea whether NASCAR will capitalize. But it's off to a fine start.