Is it seriously already that amazing time of year? Are we already at the second weekend of February, meaning the culmination of two full weeks of action at the World’s Center of Speed?
It has come, and with everything surrounding the actual race, it almost seems the action on the track is getting lost in all of it. This is the first Daytona 500 with the newer rules that were run at the former plate tracks a season ago, minus the opening race. The only reason the new rules with the taller spoilers, wicker, and tapered spacer were not run was because literally teams were preparing their 2019 Daytona 500 car most likely the Monday after the 2018 Daytona 500 concluded.
What it has done is shown that, much like last year, the closing rate on these cars and the response they have in the draft is much greater than it was with the plates. Which means, the one in the lead, or the one that sees the big run coming, is at a huge disadvantage. And we also know what that means…blocking.
And if there’s anything we have learned from the Busch Clash, it’s this: move up to block one time, you got a chance. The minute you throw a second block…you are toast.
Don’t believe me, look what happened when Joey Logano tried to block twice, and suddenly the field shrank down. Although when the event was done, there was only a literal handful that were running, damaged, and when Erik Jones crossed the line in victory, his car had a look of what David Pearson had in 1976 when he crossed the line and Richard Petty fell literally a football field short of the line.
And keep in mind, that was only 18 cars, and a 75-lap event. Now, we are talking a 200-lap event in three stages, and over double the amount of cars in the field.
Seems like this is going to be one race where the final 40 or so laps could ultimately either cause 75 percent of the field to look like they just left Martinsville, or we are going to have an event that the race winner actually looks as though they just left the showroom floor.
Still, this race is one that draws everyone in, despite all the changes that happen in the sport.
We are entering a new decade of action, and in doing so we have a leading series that has not just one, but four, title sponsors. Once Monster Energy’s contract ended after last year, no one had any idea who would step up and give the Cup Series sponsorship. In the end, just like what has become common among the teams themselves, multiple names took over as the lead sponsors for the newly renamed NASCAR Cup Series. Xfinity, Coca-Cola, GEICO and Busch all now share the role, something never seen in the sport.
This business model with what NASCAR has termed “Premier Partners” to me is excellent because each can appeal to different demographics, and each has been longtime partners in the sport among many aspects. Xfinity now has a partnership deal in Cup, while also being the lone title sponsor in the second-tier series. Busch, GEICO and Coca-Cola have been team sponsors for years, and race sponsors seemingly forever, at least in the case of Coca-Cola with their two major events during the season.
But, no matter the changes that happen, in the end, this is truly at the heart of it all the Great American Race.
When the President of the United States decides he not only wants to attend the event, but be the actual grand marshal to say the four famous words, that is a big deal. No matter what side of the political spectrum one may be on, whether for or against (which me I’m in the middle with no affiliation), to know a sitting president is coming and being part of the event is big for NASCAR. It’s the first time in over a decade that it has happened, and only the third time a president has given the command (the second time it’s happened on-site, as Ronald Reagan did so in 1984 aboard Air Force One).
Then there’s the crowd itself, selling out the event once again, showing that even though in some aspects it is a struggle filling the grandstands, even for some of the biggest events of the year, when it comes to the sport’s “Super Bowl,” they have a streak continuing.
It is the one race that truly can define a career, to an extent. Two of this year’s inductees into the Hall of Fame never experienced winning the Daytona 500, but they didn’t let it define their career.
Meanwhile, others went out and won it early in their career, and have let it be their defining moment. Everyone will remember when for Trevor Bayne, as said by Mike Joy, the “glass slipper fit.” For some it was a defining moment that came after a long time of trying, like when Darrell Waltrip decided to do the Icky Shuffle in victory. Or, after waiting two decades, we all finally got to see a black Chevrolet roll into victory lane, and hear three simple words repeated three different times, all courtesy of a man who won everything that could be won at the track except for one event.
“We won it…we won it…we won it,” said Dale Earnhardt on February 15, 1998.
After 500 miles, or possibly more, one driver will either add another defining moment to their already stellar career, or have that first defining moment in the sport’s biggest event. This is a race that is unlike any that will happen in the season. To many, there is this event, and then the season begins a week later. There is no other race like it, one that is on a track that many felt wouldn’t work back in 1959, and has become the grandest spectacle for stock car racing. It’s the final one with the current car, as in 2021 it is a completely new piece of equipment.
This is, simply put, the Great American Race…the Daytona 500.