NASCAR Coincidence, or Theater?

Wow, rookie Austin Dillon won the pole for Sunday’s Daytona 500. In a number 3 car, which hasn’t raced in the Sprint Cup series since Dale Earnhardt died in his 3 car on the last corner of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The 3’s return to the track is the first big story of the 2014 season, and how terrifically fitting it is to see that iconic number, wrapped in so much greatness, pain and emotion, back in Victory Lane at Daytona in its very first race back.

But is it real?

I ask because since Earnhardt’s death, I’ve noticed several other heart-warming and dramatic outcomes in Earnhardt-related races, including:

  1. Dale Jr. winning the July 2001 race at Daytona in the Sprint Cup series’ super-emotional first race back at the track since his father’s death. Sterling Marlin, the man who wrecked Earnhardt Sr. at the fateful Daytona 500, won the pole;
  2. Dale Jr. winning the July 2010 Nationwide series race at Daytona in a 3 car wearing a throw-back Wrangler paint scheme to honor his father’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It marked the first time Dale Jr. had raced a 3 car since his father’s death, and he hasn’t since; and
  3. Dale Jr. winning the pole for the 2011 Daytona 500, the 10th anniversary of his father’s death.

Heck, let’s look beyond Earnhardt-related events for a moment. Quick, what was the big, big story heading into the NASCAR season last year? Danica Patrick’s grand entrance into Sprint Cup racing. And who won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole? Yep—Danica.

I like sports fairy tales as much as the next guy, but what are the odds of all five of these events occurring without divine intervention? Or, maybe, NASCAR intervention?

A motive? Money. The better the racing stories, the better track attendance and TV ratings, all of which add up to better NASCAR profits. Remember, this is a sport struggling with declining attendance and ratings for several years now. Think NASCAR might be feeling pressure?

The means and opportunity? Notice how all these happy endings occurred at restrictor-plate races. NASCAR controls the distribution of the restrictor plates to each race team, correct? How hard would it be for NASCAR to give a team a plate with bigger holes than everyone else?

A rap sheet? Many fans and competitors have long suspected NASCAR sometimes throws phantom debris caution flags at the end of races to bunch up the field in a restart in order to create a dramatic finish (including Tony Stewart in 2007). I’m not the first to wonder about Dale Jr.’s pole at the 2011 Daytona 500. In his 2010 book, The Fix Is In, Brian Tuohy alleges there’s a legend within NASCAR known as “The Call,” which involves NASCAR calling a driver to tell them it’s either their day, or isn’t.

Do I have any proof NASCAR is fixing races or qualifying? No. But man, when you step back and consider how many magical coincidences have piled up over the years, it sure smells bad.