Daytona lives up to hype with drivers

Love is in the air, even at Daytona International Speedway.

Love, that is, in the form of racing in the prestigious season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500 Sunday. While drivers often lament restrictor-plate racing and its unpredictable nature, some actually seem to be leaning more toward pointing out the enjoyment of this event.

Not the crashes, obviously. Drivers remain wary of those and head to Daytona with the knowledge of how quickly things can go awry. But certainly everyone loves winning it.

A victory in this race earns the driver the title of Daytona 500 champion and becomes a permanent fixture on his resume. It's a highlight win even among men who have several to their credit, such as four-time series champions Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

So clearly it has impact.

Fans love this race as well, cheering wildly for their favorites as the frontrunners change position throughout the race. Not only is the Daytona 500 one of the premier events on the schedule, running well in or winning this race makes a stellar start to the season and can pump a team up quickly. The fact that the momentum rarely converts into a full season of success -- only one of the last three winners has a victory to his credit since that win -- gets completely lost in the hype and hoopla that surround this season-opening event.

That doesn't have to mean that people love it. In this case, though, it sometimes does.

While one might expect to hear endless grumbling about the potential to get caught up in a crash or the lack of control a driver can hold over his own destiny, instead the talk is about the improved racing at the track and the chance to win on one of NASCAR's biggest stages. And while some drivers are shifting to backup cars after early crashes at the track this week, they still carry the potential to run well there. After all, a driver can come from mid-pack to the front pretty quickly on this drafting track.

Perhaps that is why drivers spent the days leading up to the race -- those before any were caught up in crashes or posting top practice speeds -- speaking in positive terms about what Sunday offers.

Take David Reutimann. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver grew up in Zephyrhills, Fla., and remembers dreaming of someday competing at the 2.5-mile track. Now that he gets to do just that, it's both as challenging and rewarding as he hoped.

"I love it," Reutimann says. "I consider that to be my home race track, being from Florida and going over there and watching races and being part of that early on and trying to figure out how was I going to go from the stands to the infield without having to jump a fence or hide in somebody's trunk.

"That was pretty unique. So I love going to Daytona. The place is very, very special to me. It's a tough old race track. It's not the most forgiving place we go to, but it's definitely got character and it's one of the more cool places to go."

Unforgiving is a good way to describe the track and some of the incidents that have happened there over the years.

Some of the best in the business are still hungry to attach a Daytona 500 win to their name, including drivers like Stewart-Haas Racing's Tony Stewart and Hendrick Motorsports' Mark Martin.

Martin came close, narrowly falling to Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick in the 2007 race at the track. Martin starts from the pole position this time, next to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"I'm excited about the Daytona 500," he says. "I'm excited about how the cars are handling and the challenge that the handling is presenting and I think it's exciting to have Dale Earnhardt Jr. and two Chevys out of the same shop on the front row and let's go do this thing."

Others are ready to race as well, though some may feel they have been robbed at the track in the past. Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch looks at previous mishaps at the track and how those hampered his effort, something that rankles any driver even more when it happens in the season-opening event as opposed to the July race at Daytona.

"It makes it even more frustrating because it is the biggest race of the year," Busch says. "...It's just about trying to be smart through the whole race and not letting getting behind get to you and just trying to make it back up."

It's one of those tracks where drivers truly can make up lost ground or give up position quickly. It is the nature of that challenge that leads some drivers to say they enjoy racing at the place.

There's no telling what will happen as drivers race on the edge in tight packs. That doesn't seem to intimidate most of them, though.

"I love it," RCR's Clint Bowyer says. "That's the race track that I worked my whole life to get to. It's special to me. Every time you go in the tunnel and look up and see Daytona on the wall, that's the baddest track in the land. It's what this sport was built on and it's as important to my career as it is to the sport."

Opinions vary throughout the garage, but one thing is clear. No matter what one might think of the type of racing the track fosters, there's no doubt that everyone hopes to perform well on one of NASCAR's biggest stages.

After all, this is the Daytona 500 and drivers just love winning here.

"The Daytona 500 is the Daytona 500," says Gordon, a three-time winner of the event. "There's not a guy out there that doesn't want to win it, doesn't think they can win it. At this point in the season every year, everybody feels like they've got what it takes, not only to win this race but to win the championship.

"But Daytona is special. You know, you analyze every lap more here than you do probably any other race because there's so much riding on the line. There's so much buildup and anticipation getting to this event. If you win one race all year, this is the one you want to win."