Daytona 500 Sunday, Ain’t Nothin’ Like It

Daytona 500 Sunday is truely one of the most special, and unique days in all of sports. It is a day, event, and spectacle that can’t really be compared to any other day in sports.

Sure, days such as the final Sunday at Augusta, Major League Baseball’s opening day, the Indianapolis 500, and of course Super Bowl Sunday can compare to some extent, but even there, it’s closer to comparing apples to oranges.

Some may find it peculiar, or even backwards, that the NASCAR season opens with the sports biggest prize at stake and on the line. That only adds to the lore, the intrigue, and the magnitude of the event.

For NASCAR, when it’s biggest event takes place, everyone is still involved.

While the final Sunday at Augusta is a picturesque afternoon at one of the most beautiful places in the world, by the time you arrive to Sunday, only a select few of those who participated in the event still have any sort of remote possibility to win the event. The hope that springs eternal with a new beginning has already worn off for the majority of those involved.

Besides, by the time Augusta rolls around, the tour has already made stops at places such as Pebble Beach and Riviera, and been to Hawaii. Golf is no longer fresh and new, the season is well under way.

The Indianapolis 500, once the pre-eminent motorsports event in the world, no longer has the buzz that it once did, and in fact, is considered my many to be only the second most important race on the Sunday it’s run, having fallen behind NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. While in terms of a pure spectacle the Indy 500 is a step above the Daytona 500, this is about sports, and competition. If we just wanted a spectacle, well, there are plenty of other avenues upon which we could quench that thirst.

Opening day for Major League Baseball is a big day, a special and unique day in it’s own right. For many reasons that Daytona is so special due to the starting of something new, baseballs opening day has a similar feel. However, winning or losing on opening day ultimately matters very little.

Do you remember if your team won on opening day in 2006? Even the most die-hard of baseball fans likely can’t answer that question. Even the most casual of NASCAR fans might be able to answer who won the Daytona 500 in 2006.

Seriously, who remembers what happened on opening day in 1979? Most NASCAR fans have a very good recollection, or newfound awareness, of exactly what took place in the 1979 Daytona 500.

The most common comparison of course is the Super Bowl, as the Daytona 500 itself is considered the Super Bowl of NASCAR.

But consider that when the Super Bowl is completed, so is football. Done. Finished. Over. The Daytona 500 gears you up for the NASCAR season, the Super Bowl simply reminds you that football is over.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as big a football fan as anyone, and will take the NFL season and NFL playoffs over NASCARs season and Chase any day of the week. But I won’t take it over Speed Weeks down at Daytona.

Additionally, when the Sprint Cup teams come south to Florida in February for a week and a half of racing at the famed 2.5 mile superspeedway, they all come with the promise that a new season begins. It’s not just the Daytona 500 they are coming to Florida for, it’s a new year, a new season, a new chance, a new life.

Take this year for instance. Jimmie Johnson comes down here with the promise of starting a new quest to further etch his name into history. Denny Hamlin can finally attempt to bury the memory of choking away the 2010 championship, and set out again to capture an elusive title. Jeff Gordon gets yet another shot to try and match protoge turned rival Jimmie Johnson in championships and remind the world he’s not going anywhere yet.

When teams get to the Super Bowl, there is nothing to look forward to after that, particularly for the loser.

A “good showing” in the Super Bowl means absolutely nothing. A “good showing” down in Daytona can provide the momentum to propel a team towards a succsesful season.

Not only that, by the time Super Bowl Sunday rolls around, you’ve only got two teams left with anything to play for.

Today in Daytona, there will be 43. While there aren’t 43 legitimate threats to win today, and certainly not that many who are seriously vying for a championship, it’s a lot more than two. And even for those who aren’t ready to contend in prime time, they are here ready to improve, and gain momentum to top their previous season. For 30 of the 32 NFL teams, it’s already over. Super Bowl Sunday means nothing to them.

With one minute left in the Super Bowl, if we are lucky, we get two teams with a chance to win. With about one minute left this afternoon, there will still likely be about eight to ten people still with a chance to bring home the most coveted trophy in racing.

The Super Bowl has great moments, plenty of them, moreso probably than perhaps any other single sporting event in the world. But does it have the story lines and drama that a Daytona 500 does?

Do you have former World Series winners crossing over and suddenly coaching football teams in the Super Bowl, trying to obtain greatness in two sports, ala Joe Gibbs?

Are there second and third generations trying to follow in their fathers footsteps?

Are there second generation players forced to return to the site of their fathers tragic death every year to compete for the biggest prize in their sport, carrying what seems to be the weight of an entire sport on their shoulders?

You tell me what impact Bart Starr had on this years Super Bowl. Richard Petty, he of seven Daytona 500s, but none since 1981, and retired since 1992, is still coming to Daytona, still trying to win a Daytona 500, just as an owner.

The Sprint Cup season ended in the middle of November, and as soon as that season ended, the focus began on 2011. And while the focus was on 2011 as a whole, a lot of it was focused on winning one particular race in 2011, the first one.

Preparations for many teams for the Daytona 500 actually began before the 2010 season was even over. Every team spent all winner making sure their best engine was built to be put in their car for todays race. The fabrication guys spend more time massaging and perfecting the bodies of the Daytona car than they will any car they prepare all year.

Every egg is poured into this basket. Why? Because if you win Daytona, you’re done. No matter what you do or do not do ever again in your career, you win the Daytona 500, you’re somebody.

Ask Derrike Cope. There’s a reason he was still allowed to come out and run the Bud Shootout Saturday night and have some more fun in a racecar. It’s because he won the Daytona 500.

Ask Darrel Waltrip what it’s like to win the Daytona 500. Ask his brother Michael. If you ever have doubt as to what this race means, check out the end of the 1976 Daytona 500 where two of perhaps the five greatest wheelmen the sport has ever seen couldn’t figure out how to get off of turn four together without crashing due to their burning desire to win the 500.

No man better personified the importance of this race of course than the late Dale Earnhardt. His failures in the race were well documented. You thought Phil Mickelson had it bad with his failures in majors? Hah. And of course Mickelson got four chances a year. Alas, the Daytona 500 affords you one chance each year, and that’s it. Plus, the golf course never jumped up and altered the flight or path of a Mickelson golf shot as it neared the hole to clinch a tournament (see Earnhardt’s cut tire in 1990), robbing him of sure victory.

Earnhardt’s 1998 victory is perhaps best known for the receiving line down pit road where every man from every rival pit crew, and every official lined up to shake the hand of the man who finally won the Daytona 500.

Sure, NFL players congratulate one another for winning a Super Bowl, but there’s never been anything like what Earnhardt saw coming down pit road in 1998. There’s a reason for that.

The Daytona 500 brings out the best and worst in everyone on the track.

Dale Earnhardt, arguably the greatest driver the sport has seen, twice in six years was running second in the closing laps and wrecked. The number of mistakes made by the true legends of this sport in this race might seem alarming to an outsider, and appear to be an indictment on the sport and event, given that the great ones elevate their game in events such as the Super Bowl.

But you have to consider, when you, and 20 other great drivers are all attempting to elevate their game, there’s only so much room on that race track for everyone to do it.

Part of what makes the Daytona 500 so special is watching these great, magnificent drivers push everything to the limit, sometimes finding out the hard way just what that limit is. Points matter 35 races out of 36. They don’t matter today. Al Davis would love the approach to today’s race, just win baby!

Months of work are over, the culmination of hard work in the shops in North Carolina over the winter hits the track in just a few short hours. A week and a half of prelimenary races, and practicing, and dramatic moments leading up to the race are now a thing of the past. It’s go time.

Let’s go racing boy!

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