For four Nationals, life’s the pits at wreck-filled Daytona 500

VIERA, Fla. - Michael Morse got in touch with his inner Bubba on Monday night, accompanying three teammates to the Daytona 500, which was run about 70 miles north in Daytona Beach, Fla. It was the first NASCAR Sprint Cup experience for Morse, and won’t be the last.

“It was awesome, it was a great experience,” said Morse. “First one ever. I never knew how much they worked - the pit crew, the drivers, the owners, the spotters. It’s just constant non-stop chaos.”

A friend of general manager Mike Rizzo who is involved in NASCAR set up the quartet, which also included Jayson Werth, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen. Originally, Rizzo was hopeful of making them grand marshals for the kickoff to the NASCAR season - which has the biggest race, the sport’s Super Bowl, at the start of the schedule - but the spotty weather forecast scrapped those plans. The race, originally scheduled for Sunday, was postponed because of rain for the first time in its history and rescheduled for noon Monday. But weather issues pushed the start back until evening, giving the race an unscheduled prime-time spot on FOX.

Unfortunately, the Nationals in attendance, who watched part of the race from pit road, turned out to be bad luck for whatever driver they were near. They hung out behind Jimmie Johnson’s pit before the race and Johnson was involved in a second-lap crash that also collected Danica Patrick, another driver who the Nationals kept tabs on in pre-race ceremonies. Johnson finished 42nd in the 43-car field, while Patrick placed 38th. They walked down to Jeff Gordon’s pit for a while, and Gordon blew an engine and finished 40th.

“Seemed like every pit we were near, something (bad) was always going on,” Morse said. “There was a wreck or a car was blowing an engine.”

And the Washington contingent spent some time in the pits of the Target Chevrolet Impala driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, who was involved in the most spectacular wreck of the night. With 40 laps to go, Montoya, who finished 36th, spun into a truck equipped with a jet dryer used to dry the track and the collision ignited 200 gallons of jet fuel used to power the industrial strength fan. The ensuing inferno caused the race to be stopped for more than two hours while track crews used laundry detergent to clean the track.

“I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to restart the race because the track would be damaged,” said Storen, an Indiana native who has attended both the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.

Morse was impressed by the skill of the drivers and the synchronicity required for the race teams to effectively function. Matt Kenseth eventually won the race, which didn’t finish until early Tuesday morning. The Nationals left while the racetrack was being repaired following Montoya’s fiery crash.

“There’s so much more to it,” he said. “When you watch it on TV, you’re just seeing the cars go around and around. You really don’t know what’s going on. We were fortunately enough to be down there in the pits and that was intense.”

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