News & Media


Caraviello: Hope and emotion swirl around NASCAR's biggest race

February 27, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Jimmie Johnson says his Daytona 500 victory was

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Hopes, memories and emotions swirl around NASCAR's biggest race

The question often leaves them grasping for descriptions and analogies, none of them seeming quite adequate. What does it feel like to win the Daytona 500? They sit and think, stumbling through false starts and silences, searching for the right words to describe one of the most momentous achievements of their lives. Sometimes, there are none.

And sometimes, they come out in a torrent.

"For a moment or for a day you are at the top of that mountain. Nothing matters. All your wants and needs, all the problems you have, little petty things that bother you -- everything goes away."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"When you win that race, it is really hard to explain. It's just really hard to explain," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "All the things that you want out of life, and all the pressures you put on yourself or you feel from other people, all the things you want to accomplish -- everybody sort of has this mountain in front of them that they put in front of themselves that they want to climb. For a moment or for a day you are at the top of that mountain. Nothing matters. All your wants and needs, all the problems you have, little petty things that bother you -- everything goes away. You just feel like you have realized your full potential."

Earnhardt's Daytona 500 victory in 2004 was overloaded with emotion, coming three years after his father's fatal accident in the same event. But the overriding emotion was one of extreme personal fulfillment. The memories and sensations of that day -- Earnhardt parking his old No. 8 car at the start/finish line, his jubilant crew rushing through the infield to greet him and then lifting their driver up on their shoulders -- come rushing back every time he sees the highlights.

"Obviously, you set a lot of goals for yourself, and that is just one of the goals," he said. "But just for a moment, just for that one day, whether it is 30 minutes or an hour after you cross that finish line, you feel like it can't get any better than this. It is a pretty incredible emotion. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity to experience it. It is such a special moment. Every time I see a replay of me and my crew celebrating below the flag stand, it all comes back so clearly. Every time I see that, I just think about how fortunate I feel to have won that race."

The Sprint Cup championship may be every driver's ultimate goal, the Brickyard 400 trophy may represent a victory at one of the world's oldest and most difficult race tracks, but in terms of a moment, a dream, and a single-day flood of emotion, nothing tops the Daytona 500. Some of those who have yet to win it picture what the experience may be like, right down to the details in Victory Lane. Others can't bear to imagine it, not wanting to get too far ahead of themselves. But even those who have experienced NASCAR's ultimate thrill -- coming off the high bank of Turn 4, taking the checkered flag, hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy -- often labor to express the magnitude of it all.

"Boy, I'd never thought it through," said 2006 winner Jimmie Johnson. "Things slowed down. It was surreal. It was just a wild experience. ... No one can prepare you for it. Especially being a driver that hadn't won a big race or a championship before, I had no clue. Not only what took place with the emotions and the things that went on in Victory Lane, but the days to follow and what went with that. It was an eye-opening experience. Unless you have been through it before, I don't think you can prepare yourself for it. ... There is nothing that gets you ready for it, and it is more than you have ever hoped, to be honest with you, or ever dreamed of. It is one heck of an experience."

Different things stand out for different champions. For Cale Yarborough, who won the first of his four Daytona 500 crowns in 1977, it was the simple fact that "a country boy from Sardis, S.C., had just won the Daytona 500. Hard to believe," the new NASCAR Hall of Fame member said. For 2009 winner Matt Kenseth, it was all the fanfare that followed, which includes a display of the winning car for one year at Daytona and a tour of major cities and media outlets. For 2007 winner Kevin Harvick, it was the fraternity of Daytona 500 champions he had suddenly joined.

"When you look at that Harley J. Earl trophy and you see the names on that trophy and you start to see the recognition and the list of people you put yourself on there with, it is something that is pretty special."

--KEVIN HARVICK

"When you are standing there in Victory Lane, and you look at that Harley J. Earl trophy and you see the names on that trophy and you start to see the recognition and the list of people you put yourself on there with, it is something that is pretty special," he said. "This is our sport's biggest race, and everybody puts their biggest effort into this race, because you have the most time. It has the most hype and it pays the most money. It has the most prestigious trophy, and there is nothing about this race that is not the biggest or the best."

For a select few, winning the Daytona 500 is a treasured memory. For many more it's a hope, a daydream, an ethereal vision yet to be realized. A.J. Allmendinger, who finished third in the event in 2009, said he goes to bed every night seeing himself coming off Turn 4, making the pass for the win, and coasting into Victory Lane. "It's all a fantasy until it becomes a reality," he added. Martin Truex Jr., who finished sixth in the Daytona 500 in 2010, has pictured it all in his mind's eye.

"I have," Truex said. "Confetti, flashes, tears -- everything. I mean, it would be pretty cool."

Others aren't willing to go that far. Sometimes during a race, if he has a good car and a nice lead, Denny Hamlin will allow himself to think about winning the race. The closest he ever came to doing that in the Daytona 500 was four years ago, when he was among the leaders in the final laps, and went on to finish 17th in an event Ryan Newman won. "I never really think of it until those moments," Hamlin said. "I always try to block out that scoreboard as late as possible."

Tony Stewart blocks it out completely. The reigning champion of NASCAR's premier series is chasing that elusive first Daytona 500 victory for 14th time, and has been the class of Speedweeks with a close runner-up finish in the Budweiser Shootout exhibition last weekend, and a victory in a qualifying race Thursday. But his mind never wanders over into what it might be like to roll into NASCAR's most famous Victory Lane.

"I don't know how you could," he said. "I don't know how you could honestly sit there and imagine what that moment would be like. You just hope you get to live it."

Those who have carry it with them for life. Some drivers like Derrike Cope, Tiny Lund, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Martin, Dale Jarrett and defending champion Trevor Bayne are defined by their victories in the Daytona 500. Others like Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip found redemption and relief in it. Although a Daytona 500 championship may allow a driver to summit that career mountain for only a short time -- Cope won only one more Cup Series race, and Bayne still hasn't found enough sponsorship to run full-time -- the legacy remains intact forever.

"Careers are made on the Daytona 500," Clint Bowyer said. "I just look at, Derrike Cope is a prime example of winning the Daytona 500 and being still in this thing. He probably could have just as easily retired, but he's able to go back and find rides in tough times because of the fact that he is a Daytona 500 winner. My boss, Michael Waltrip, is a another prime example. ... That put him on the map, and he will always be a champion in the biggest race that we showcase."

Bowyer has twice finished fourth in the Daytona 500, most recently in 2010. If he breaks through Sunday? "Oh, it would be big," he said. "They'd have a hell of a time. They'd have to chain me down to somewhere they could find me the next morning for that trip to New York for the media. We might have to do it by satellite."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.