DAYTONA BEACH - Baseball's return is upon us, but there's no leisurely warming up or pretend competition when NASCAR drivers report for spring training.
Beginning with the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night and kicking right over into Sunday's qualifying for the front row of the Daytona 500, it's run like crazy or get run over.
Throw in the constant morphing of Daytona International Speedway into monstrously new personalities and even the giants of the game come here feeling flustered and tense rather than refreshed from the off-season.
NASCAR officials are working, for instance, on subtle changes to reduce the amount of two-car tandem racing. That's when one driver partners up with another to alternately push and be pushed around the track at maximum drafting speed. Rookie Trevor Bayne got a shocking Daytona 500 victory out of that extended bumper-to-bumper racing style last year, but it didn't quite feel or look like Daytona to everybody.
"To NASCAR's credit, they've been working real hard to try to put it back into the driver's hands and give drivers control of their own destiny instead of pairing up and having to take care of each other out there on the race track all the time," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at Thursday's Speedweeks media day.
"Carl Edwards was right. He's the one that said you shouldn't repave it. Maybe they should have just fixed a few spots."
Junior laughed out loud as he said that. He led the call for giving Daytona its first full asphalt makeover in 32 years, and recognizes now that nobody will ever completely figure out what guarantees great racing here. Officials are tinkering with the specs on radiators now, hoping that drivers will disconnect and race in wild and wooly packs if tandem racing causes them to quickly overheat.
The tweaking of equipment and technical rules may not even be complete until the eve of the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 itself. Getting back to the baseball analogy, it's like asking a pitcher to report to training camp with the mound built slightly higher than normal, and slightly lower next week.
Mystery is one of NASCAR's most appealing components. Tony Stewart surely didn't expect to win his third Sprint Cup Series championship last season, but five wins in the last 10 races did it for him, including a thrilling victory at Homestead's finale. Stewart made a total of 118 passes over the course of that one rowdy, rainy afternoon to take the title from Carl Edwards.
"I wish I could explain it," said Stewart, who has voluntarily ramped up the drama by switching crew chiefs from Darian Grubb to Steve Addington in the wake of his championship season. "The way our year went, the first 26 weeks, anything that could go wrong went wrong. The days we didn't have a problem, we just missed it on the setup. The days that we were good, something would happen. Our pit strategy would be wrong or something.
"Those last 10 weeks, for some reason, everything went right."
Now Tony has another puzzle to solve. He's won the 400-mile summer race here a couple of times but never the Daytona 500. It's nowhere close to the frustration level that the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. felt, having raced at a superstar level for more than two decades before finally getting his first and only Daytona 500 victory in 1998. Stewart admits, however, that winning NASCAR's Super Bowl event is "at the top of my bucket list."
"If you look at his talent level and his accomplishments in restrictor-plate races, Tony's starting to get in that category with Dale," Jeff Gordon said. "He's got a few more years and I know Tony hopes he doesn't get all the way into that category."
For every tired, old story line out here, there's a new wrinkle. Danica Patrick looks like it this year. She's scheduled to supplement her full-time Nationwide Series schedule with 10 starts on the Sprint Cup circuit. One of those will be next week's Daytona 500, and that steered many of Thursday's questions toward learning what other drivers think of her.
"She's feistier than I was coming out here, I think," Stewart said. "Driving to eat dinner when we were here (last month) to test, she was determined to beat me to the edge of the parking lot at the restaurant. I just said, 'Let her go. It's a long season. I'll let you win the first time.' "
Racing to the restaurant, that's what passes for spring training with NASCAR's rocket men, and one spotlighted woman. The real competition starts now, and those tires won't stop squealing until November, when Homestead brings it all home again.