We're only two days away from the 50th running of the Daytona 500. Two days away from a long, grueling, and at times, exciting American tradition.
In 2007, it was Kevin Harvick who took the checkered flag. Any diehard NASCAR fan remembers the dramatic finish that that race showcased. .02 seconds. That is all that divided Harvick's car from veteran driver Mark Martin's. It was one of the closest finishes in the races history. Jimmie Johnson, the man who went on to win the Nextel Cup Championship, finished the race way back in 39th due to an accident. He ran only 173 laps, coming out of the gates in '07 very poorly. His teammate, Jeff Gordon, of Hendrick Motorsports, faired much better. Gordon raced all the way to the 10th position, and went on to lead the entire NASCAR pack for the betterment of the season. And yet, even as we look ahead to this weekend's race, the likes of Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon are not at the forefront of the media attention.
The attention is focused moreso on new Hendrick Motorsports driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt Jr. has been on a winless streak for a few years now, totalling up to 62 races. That's right. The most popular NASCAR driver for the past multitude of years, has not won a Nextel Cup points-worthy race in his last 62 tries. And yet, he's favored.
Why? Because he landed himself on the most dominant team in the business. This year's 500 marks the 10 year anniversary when Dale Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500, a race no fan of this sport has forgotten. Now part of Hendrick Motorsports, dawning a new sponsor and number, "Little-E" is looking to break loose and do something special; win the Daytona 500 ten years after his late father did, and possibly put himself on a path for success.
He's gonna have some stiff competition, of course. He has teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the sports two dominating figures of 2007, to deal with...and a slew of others. One that sticks out of all the rest is Tony Stewart. Stewart started his season by getting into a fist fight with Kurt Busch, after bumping him into the wall. Both drivers have since been put on a six-race probation, but to me that says two things. 1) That's merely a slap on the wrist. and 2) Tony Stewart is already in mid-season form. The #20 Home Depot car's driver is firey, no doubt, but he's also winless at Daytona. Earnhardt Jr. has his own winless streak to attend too, and so does Tony Stewart.
Winning races is tough business, you've got not only the other drivers to fight, but the track itself as well. Sunday, the field of drivers will have to weather a different sort of storm; tire issues. In the days leading up to the 500, through the Bud Shoot and qualifying runs, the tires have been wearing down severely. In auto-racing, that's the equivalent to playing on Heinz Field in December. With tires running down after 25 laps on the track, along with the "Car of Tomorrow" (or Today) in place for all drivers--which has a slew of kinks to work out still--we're looking at a rough race on Sunday.
With all of this known, I wonder why anyone is even picking favorites. ESPN has done a few short segments on the upcoming race, and numerous analysts have taken Earnhardt Jr., along with other drivers, which all seems to amount to a big fat pile of nada in my mind. Even the biggest names in the sport can't be looked upon with any sense of utmost confidence going into Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500. And that's how it should be...at least every once in a while. It may end up being good for the entertainment side of things that the entire playing field may have been leveled, or at least getting as close to it as possible. Daytona is the biggest race of the year next to the final installment for "The Chase For the Nextel Cup", and in 2008, figures to be something a bit beyond special. If seeing Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart get a victory on Sunday qualifies as special, then the race we're sure to see is going to be wondrous display for millions to behold.
Regardless of who comes out on top...it should be one to remember. I myself am a Gordon fan, which would without a doubt put a bad taste in many diehard fans' mouths; but, just like at the end of Super Bowl XLII as the team I had pulled for fell, and I congratulated, even enjoyed seeing Eli Manning take the field in joy...I feel a sense of wanting to see the #88 car pull into Victory Lane. For the past two years, we've gotten the feel good ending to the NFL season; Peyton Manning finally getting the monkey off his back, and his little brother Eli vanquishing the beast...it only seems fitting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to, for the first time in his career, win "The Great American Race" 10 years after his father won--also for the first time in his career. But, like most mountains in life that we must climb, there's a few traps set. And I cant wait to see Jr. manuever himself through it all and come out of the smoke a winner, jump on top of his car, chug a soda and raise a fist for not only his father, but himself.