Things change, but Daytona 500 is timeless
February 12, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Season-opening race remains a constant in NASCAR's sea of change
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- These days, the cranes are the first thing you notice about Daytona International Speedway. They tower above the race track, even above the steel framework of a new frontstretch grandstand that will be twice the height of the existing one. Men in hard hats are everywhere, some of them lit by the occasional flare of a welding torch. Temporary banners indicate the current seating areas, all of it a reminder that this Speedweeks will take place in a construction zone.
If the renderings are any indication, all the work will be worth it, and NASCAR's most famous race track will become the ultra-modern, showplace facility it deserves to be. But then again, the magic that can radiate from here has always been less about the physical venue itself -- which has gone through all kinds of transformations since Bill France Sr. scraped it out of the ground so many years ago -- than something much more intangible. The place may be crawling with steelworkers at the moment, but there's a timeless quality about it nonetheless. Daytona may change, but the Daytona 500 remains the same.
That's never more evident than it is in a season like this one, where NASCAR will experience, among other things, both a new kind of qualifying procedure and a revamped method of determining who wins the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- changes that will impact almost every weekend on which the premier circuit competes. Almost. After having all these modifications announced, discussed, dissected and debated over the past month, it's time to put them aside for a bit. Because the beautiful thing about Daytona is, the immediate future always looks a little like the past.
Yes, you could sense that even Tuesday, as workers once again put up the temporary orange fencing that for years now has separated Speedweeks-bound pedestrians from the traffic on International Speedway Boulevard. The Daytona 500 is, after all, a race that has remained fundamentally unchanged despite the necessary modernity that's engulfed NASCAR over the past decade. The distance is still 500 miles, like it's always been. The starting field is still set by qualifying races, like it's always been. The winner still hoists the Harley J. Earl Trophy, like he always has. From Lee Petty to Ward Burton to Matt Kenseth, the significance of this single victory is as eternal as the sands of the Daytona shoreline itself.
These two weeks belong to you, you purists and traditionalists. That new group qualifying format? The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series may use it here, but for the Daytona 500, ritual reigns over all. After some experimentation with start times, the green flag once again falls under bright Florida sunshine in the early afternoon. Although the Budweiser Duel qualifying races have been moved under the lights this season, the basic structure of Speedweeks has long been a constant -- the exhibition now known as the Sprint Unlimited highlighting the first half since 1979, the NASCAR troika anchoring the second in place since 2000, the Great American Race itself a fixture since 1959.
All of those are giant stone pillars that may get spruced up or repainted every once in a while, but remain fundamentally in place. Over the past 13 years NASCAR has taken some giant leaps, from striking national television contracts to expanding its geographic footprint to instituting a playoff system. This is a very different sport than it was even in 2000, when reigning series champion Dale Jarrett won his third Daytona 500 title, a trifecta that as much as anything got him into the Hall of Fame. But the meaning of this race has not budged one iota -- if anything, it's become even further deeply rooted given all the change that's taken place around it. The Daytona 500 is NASCAR's single greatest touchstone, its rock even though another track once called itself the very same thing.
My goodness, just look at the reactions. Darrell Waltrip dancing a jig. Dale Earnhardt rolling down pit road shaking hands with one crewman after another, no matter what colors they wore. Dale Earnhardt Jr. being mobbed by his team at the start/finish line. Jeff Gordon banging a drumbeat on the roof of his car. Jamie McMurray being reduced to tears. Trevor Bayne screaming in disbelief over the radio. Jimmie Johnson waiting until (almost) everyone had left the race track to break out his rendition of the Harlem Shake. Yes, every driver wants to win every week. But no race evokes personal and memorable responses quite like the Daytona 500, simply because no other race means as much.
In fairness, the Daytona 500 is not completely immune to change. It's a little bit different every year, given that there are often new rules in play, new editions of cars being rolled out, new drivers carrying new hopes for a new season. Rain once pushed the start to a Monday night, and a jet dryer fire pushed that same finish to a Tuesday morning. The length of the qualifying races -- which back in the day counted as points victories -- have been tinkered with. The entirety of Speedweeks itself has been picked up and shifted on the calendar to accommodate factors outside of NASCAR.
But in and of itself, the Great American Race remains the same thing it's always been. No other event better bridges the gap from the beach contests of yesteryear to the modern high-speed ovals of today. No other event has maintained its stature to fans and competitors alike for as long. In the coming years, some driver will win the Daytona 500 before a rebuilt stadium of a race track, the one rising up in the form of a steel superstructure right now. And the meaning and significance of that victory won't be any less than it was when Junior Johnson or Fireball Roberts won it before a grandstand that might have risen about a dozen rows high.
And now, the journey to that same moment begins again -- quite literally, in that trucks carrying NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race cars were trundling down the interstate on Tuesday, trying to get ahead of a winter storm that had the Charlotte area in its crosshairs. Thursday brings Media Day, Friday cars on the track for real for the first time in 2014. And next Sunday, a driver will roll into Victory Lane with construction cranes and steel framework rising up in the background. Odds are, he or she won't even notice, given all the tears and champagne in their eyes. They'll have won the Daytona 500. That's all that matters. That's all that ever has.