The biggest question folks always ask me this time of year, is why is the Daytona 500 so special? Why is it that people get more pumped up for this race than any other on the schedule?
I always reflect back on the triumphs and tragedies I have experienced personally and seen there as a fan, competitor and now a TV broadcaster. Maybe part of it is that we haven't had a race since the third weekend of November. From a team standpoint, that is a really long time. You use every day of that time to get yourself ready for the Daytona 500.
Remember that most of the major teams have folks that all they do is work on the restrictor plate program -- 24/7/365. That's their only job. As I have told you many times, with a restricted engine, if you can find a two- or three-horsepower gain that's huge.
I have worked with the best engine men in the business over my career -- Junior Johnson, Robert Yates, Waddell Wilson and on and on. So I know firsthand the effort they put into giving the driver the best possible restrictor-plate motor they can. The computer technology, which wasn't available years ago, has really refined these restrictor plate motors. The other thing to take into account is the parts and pieces they use today are much more durable than we used to have access to, even though today's components are much lighter.
The car guys, under today's specs and templates, have a tougher job now trying to find ways to lessen the drag on the car through the air. If they can find anything, well it's just like finding more horsepower. The car guys will take two or three superspeedway cars and take them to the windtunnel trying to find that perfect car. What is normally the case, even as closely identically built as they are, there will always be that one car that drives better, is better in the windtunnel and the driver likes more.
But the strange thing is so many times you simply can't explain why it is. But you know what? It doesn't matter. It's your best piece. It's your best horse. That's the one you hope you are going to ride all the way into Victory Circle for the Daytona 500.
The other major anticipation comes from the driver. He's constantly training and living basically in that weight room. Just like the team, the car and the motor, that ol'driver has to be in tip-top shape too heading to Daytona.
So put all that together plus the fact it just happens to be our version of the Super Bowl and you can get an idea why this race is so important and special. It's the only race on the schedule where you have three months of no racing and so you prepare, think about and anticipate this one more than ever.
The other thing that I have seen evolve over the years at Daytona has become quite interesting to me to track. It used to be if you came out of the box winning the Daytona 500 you were set. You had all that positive momentum and it seemed like it set the tone for your entire season.
But here of late, it hasn't seemed to work that way anymore. Kevin Harvick won the 500 three years ago and his season went downhill from there. Two years ago, Ryan Newman basically pulled off the upset and his year went downhill from there. Last year, Matt Kenseth not only wins the Daytona 500 but he backs that up the next week by winning the race in California. From that point on, Matt's season also took a nose dive.
So can you say there is a jinx on your after winning the Daytona 500? But let me be crystal clear on this next statement. If there is a jinx, these drivers would accept it gladly. I know I tell you this all the time, but if you are only going to win one race in your entire NASCAR Sprint Cup career, clearly the Daytona 500 would be the one to pick.
That easily would be the biggest win of your life. You join a very very elite group of drivers when you win the 500. I think that is the other thing that makes Daytona really really special. It's an elite fraternity when you look down the list of Daytona 500 winners.
Again, for me personally, Daytona has blessed me with the highest of highs, but knocked me right back down in the ground with the lowest of lows. I won the 500 in 1989 and it was the crown jewel of my career. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I witnessed two of my dearest friends, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Neil Bonnett lose their lives at that track.
In between that, the worst wrecks and the only time I had been significantly hurt in a race car in 29 years of Sprint Cup racing came from being at Daytona. When I woke up in the hospital in Daytona in 1990 and not only were they starting the race with out me, but also the doctors were saying my career might be over, well let's just say those were also very dark days.
My point is, at least for me, when you think about all the high points and triumphs at Daytona, there is also in the back of your mind all the disastrous things you have literally been a part of or at least witnessed there. It's just another element that goes along with that track and that race that makes it to me and most others, the most anticipated races of the year.
Sure, your No. 1 goal is to go there and win. At the same time, you have to go there understanding the possible negative side of things equally as well. Daytona -- well yes, she's a Beach alright, unfortunately she isn't always sunny.