Truth be known, last month’s Rolex 24 Hours was a mere warm-up for the big show, which arrives in Daytona at the end of this week.
By mid-week more than 100 haulers containing Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck series cars will set out from their bases, mostly in North Carolina, headed south to Daytona for the start of the NASCAR season. Practice and qualifying for the Daytona 500 begins next weekend with the 54th running of the 500 starting on February 28.
The 500 has been moved one week later than usual this year in order to distance it from the weekend before last’s Super Bowl, the giant of American sports. Everything stops in the United States for the Super Bowl, which attracted 111 million viewers this year, more than 10 times the TV audience Daytona will draw. NASCAR and its television partners are probably correct in believing it’s best to keep a safe distance from the Super Bowl in order to gain maximum media exposure for Daytona and NASCAR’s season kick-off.
Inevitably, there have been complaints from fans about the date change. Many NASCAR fans own long-standing time-shares in North Florida condominiums blocked out for the middle week in February so some of them will miss this year’s 500. Of course, the Daytona 500’s February date is essential to the race’s continuing success because it draws fans to Florida’s sun from all corners of the northern United States when everyone is looking for a break from winter. So it will be interesting to see if the date change has any effect on the crowd.
In fact, the coming week of racing at Daytona is affectionately known as ‘Red Neck High Holy Days’ as NASCAR fans follow the teams south, some flying but many driving aboard a variety of motor homes, pick-up trucks and SUVs. It’s time to get some sun, cruise the beach, grill a bunch of burgers and steaks, party a little (or a lot), and enjoy some racin’.
In Tony Stewart NASCAR this year has the perfect defending champion. Stewart won the championship in style with some excellent end-of-season races and his aggressive driving and outspoken manner make him a big fan favourite, second only to Dale Earnhardt Jr. Stewart became a team owner three years ago in partnership with machine tool manufacturer Gene Haas and Stewart-Haas runs a pair of Chevrolets for Stewart and Ryan Newman with chassis and engines supplied by Hendrick Motorsport.
Danica Patrick (above with Tony Stewart) joins Stewart-Haas at Daytona this year in a third car as she makes a full-time move from Indycars to stock cars. Patrick will be surrounded all week by endless ‘Danicamania’ hype and more than a few people believe that with NASCAR’s help she will qualify on pole…
Of course, Daytona never provides much of an indicator about the rest of the season because the races at Daytona and Talladega are run with restrictor plates, designed to limit horsepower to less than 500 rather than the 850 or more available at all other NASCAR races. With restrictor plates the show’s the thing and almost anybody can win, witness the long list of unlikely Daytona winners since the dreaded plates were introduced in 1988.
Things will be a little different this year because NASCAR is introducing fuel injection at Daytona. The teams have done a lot of testing with the new McLaren/Bosch fuel injection system and NASCAR expects the transition from carburettors to go smoothly. Again, NASCAR is all about ‘the show’ rather than technology and the Rednecks are perfectly happy with that.