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Daytona's summer race has identity all its own

July 03, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rolling through the tunnel and into the infield at Daytona International Speedway, the eye isn't immediately drawn to the high-banked turns of NASCAR's most famous race track. You don’t initially notice the expanding steel skeleton of the Daytona Rising project, creeping ever further toward the sky. This time of year, the venue's defining characteristic might be a more seasonal accessory -- the inflatable swimming pools adorning nearly every campsite.

Indeed, we're not in Speedweeks anymore.

If Daytona in February is all about the pressure-packed pursuit of NASCAR's biggest event, the track's annual July race takes the tone of the holiday weekend on which it's stood since moving off Independence Day itself in 1988. A fireworks spectacular is planned for after the checkered flag. Military tributes are slated throughout the weekend. Drivers take their kids to Walt Disney World, or their wives to the beach. This is a race weekend which burns as brightly as a Roman candle, and is tied up in a bow colored red, white and blue.

No, it's not the 500 -- but nothing is. July at Daytona presents a shorter race and a very different atmosphere, one complete with heat and humidity that at times Thursday made it feel like 110 degrees. When asked to compare the track's two annual Sprint Cup Series events, Brian Vickers began with a prologue: "Besides it's really, really hot?"

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While not everyone agrees -- "Wait 'til Indy in August. It's way hotter than this," Nationwide Series driver Elliott Sadler argued -- all those inflatable pools sitting at all those campsites speak for themselves. And they kind of set the tone for the weekend, which is a little bit more laid back, even for a restrictor-place event with a potential Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth on the line.

"We go through our majors and can argue what tracks kind of fit into that category, and I don't feel that this July race is really in that category," said six-time series champion and three-time Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson, who last season became the first driver in 31 years to sweep the track's two events. "But I think it's a fun race because of the weekend it falls on, and we're able to run patriotic paint schemes, say thank you to the men and women that defend and serve for us, and celebrate Independence Day. That definitely jazzes things up and pushes it up the list."

Daytona in July, when the beaches are crowded and the air conditioners are cranked up to the max, offers a very different environment from the same place in February, both on the track and off. On hotter, slicker asphalt, handling is always at a premium. On the Nationwide side, Sadler said there are real concerns about managing engine temperatures in traffic. The intensity and the pressure dip to slightly more tolerable levels, even though the summer race here offers a potential playoff berth just like its more famous brother.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won both events, has seen it firsthand.

"The driver's meeting alone will set the tone and can take you out of the race and can really intimidate you if you let it," he said of the 500. "There's just so much happening, and so many people on pit road, and you're bring thrust in front of all these people to shake hands and meet, and you just want to think about the race and get in your car and you don’t want any distractions. You're just really kind of struggling through that in the pre-race. It won't be like that for the 400. It will be a typical weekend."

The 500, he added, just offers a "different feeling" that makes competitors very aware of how big it is. "I remember when we were running there at the end of the 500, how nerve-wracking all those restarts were," Earnhardt said of his victory in February. "That’s much more of a bigger deal when it's the Daytona 500. But winning here regardless, it's a great feeling. You're going to try your guts out. But I think you get much more nervous and certainly aware of how big the situation is when it's the 500."

No, it's not the 500, but it's still Daytona -- something summertime winners like David Ragan, Jimmy Spencer and John Andretti certainly understand.

"I think a win at Daytona is a win at Daytona," Vickers said. "This race has a tremendous amount of meaning. We always put a lot of emphasis on the Daytona 500, but to walk out of here with a trophy, and to be in Victory Lane at Daytona, I think still carries a lot of meaning regardless of which race it is."

Different races have different meanings to different drivers -- for instance, Johnson is eyeing Chicagoland because his crew chief Chad Knaus is from the area, and Jeff Gordon wants Kentucky because it's the last active track on which he hasn't won. When it comes to Daytona, though, the prestige of the place manages to transcend the calendar. The Harley J. Earl Trophy and the Great American Race may be supplanted in July by fireworks and inflatable pools, but regardless of the time of year the essence of Daytona remains.

"Winning in Daytona is always a special thing -- whether it's an IROC race, or I've tried here many times in a Grand-Am car to win, if it was the six-hour event in the summer or the Rolex 24," Johnson said. "I wouldn't mind winning a Big Wheel race in the infield. It wouldn't bother me a bit to win in Daytona. For me, it's up there on the list for sure."

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