DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two of NASCAR's most successful drivers dominated the discussion on the first day of Speedweeks.
For different reasons, of course.
Earnhardt died a decade ago on the final lap of the Daytona 500, and fellow drivers reminisced on the upcoming, 10-year anniversary of that race, as well as the significant safety changes that followed.
"It's meaningful to me because of Dale and his fans," said Michael Waltrip, who won the 2001 Daytona 500 driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. "That race was a quarter of a mile away from maybe being the best Daytona 500 ever. It was an amazing race. It had everything: An upset winner, Dale battling those guys. It was just an amazing race.
"Instead, it's the worst race ever. You won't ever see that race in the greatest races in Daytona history. It's the worst. I live with that. I'm the winner of that race. I'm not here to celebrate that. I'm here to honor Dale."
Waltrip wasn't alone.
Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and several others told stories about their relationships with the driver nicknamed The Intimidator. Kevin Harvick talked about landing the dubious task of taking over Earnhardt's ride at Richard Childress Racing and then finally learning to embrace it.
Since Earnhardt's death, NASCAR has overhauled its safety standards, installed SAFER barriers at tracks, mandated the use of head-and-neck restraints and designed a car to better protect drivers at high speeds.
"The past 10 years it's come tenfold," Labonte said. "I can look at race cars that I have in my shop from 10 years ago and I say, 'I can't believe I drove that.' ... Unfortunately, things like (Earnhardt's death) had to happen to make (safety improvements) happen."
Johnson made his Cup debut eight months after Earnhardt's death, and it didn't take very long for him to establish himself as one to watch.
Now, he's the one to beat.
Johnson has won five consecutive titles with Hendrick Motorsports, an accomplishment that rivals any dynasty in American sports history.
"Without a doubt, everybody is tired of us winning," Johnson said. "That's just how it is."
Harvick and Denny Hamlin nearly ended Johnson's run last season, but Johnson edged out both in what was the tightest Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Johnson won his fifth despite a May slump and an overhauled pit crew.
"I don't think you can count on him stumbling," Harvick said. "That was a lot of the talk last year, that they were stumbling, and you get into the Chase and there they are."
Johnson is the preseason favorite to win another title in 2011, but he expects more challengers since Roush Fenway Racing made huge strides late last season.
"If it all ended today, there's no way I'd be disappointed," Johnson said. "It's been one hell of a run. So proud of the growth I've had as a driver, from motocross to off-road trucks to stock cars, there were a lot of years there where I was tearing stuff up and trying to find my way. With my opportunity at Hendrick, things smoothed out, and it's been one heck of a ride."
NASCAR officials are hoping the same can be said of the 53rd running of the Daytona 500. The 2½-mile superspeedway got repaved for the first time since 1979, creating a surface that could create more pack racing during Speedweeks.
"We're not going to have holes in the track," said two-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, referring to last year's Daytona 500 pothole debacle. "That's a pretty good improvement over last year."
NASCAR changes, which include tweaking the points system and modifying rules for making the Chase, also were hot topics Thursday. Sprint Cup rookie Trevor Bayne got some attention when he announced he hopes to be in the top 15 in points.
"That might be setting the bar a little high here at first, and that may set us up for failure," Bayne said. "But I want to have high goals so I can get to them and not be satisfied if we run 25th. I always want to be pushing for more."
IndyCar star Danica Patrick has similar goals in her second, part-time NASCAR season. Patrick will drive 12 Nationwide Series races and is looking to improve on her best showing, a 19th-place finish in the season finale at Homestead.
"I'm lucky that people care about my story and that they want to read about it or hear about it, and that you all write about it," Patrick said. "I want to do well. I want people to believe in me as a driver."