DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’ll be crowded, it’ll be loud, it’ll be colorful. It’ll even be presidential, as Donald Trump turns up the pre-race voltage beyond its already booming norm.
And in the end someone will be showered in confetti and have his legend either made or added upon.
There you have it. That’s basically everything we know about the unfolding of Sunday’s Daytona 500, which gets the green flag at 3:05 p.m. ET and immediately morphs from spectacle to 200-mph tightrope act.
Everything you’ve learned through 1,200-plus miles of stock-car racing since last weekend? Write it all down on a notepad, fold the pages neatly, then toss it all in the nearest trash bin. Once the Daytona 500 climbs through the gears on Lap 1, the fog of war rules the day.
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“We’ve been coming down here since 1959,” says “King Richard” Petty, who’s seen ’em all and won seven of them. “Nobody really knows who’s where, what’s going on. Even after you practice, qualify, run a couple of races and stuff, it’s still not like the 500. That’s a completely different animal.”
This one figures to be even more different than usual, considering a presidential visit that will swallow most early-day attention. Given President Trump’s affinity for “huge” events, he’ll undoubtedly be happy to know this year’s Daytona 500 is the richest in history.
A race that started in 1959 with a purse of $53,050 and that first cracked the $1 million mark in 1985, this year will reward the 40 participating race teams with a total of $23.6 million.
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But in a mark of a truly iconic sporting event (as opposed to those that just borrow the adjective) no one ever talks about the money in victory lane or even in the days following.
This is NASCAR’s crowning jewel and, for many, the only auto race they’ll watch all year — similar to the Kentucky Derby and Super Bowl in that way. Using the modern world’s best barometer — TV ratings — the Daytona 500 long ago surpassed its famous elder, the Indianapolis 500.
It got there by delivering thrills and spills, drama and theatrics, each and every time.
More than 30 years ago, in an effort to blunt the growing (and dangerous) speeds of its fastest cars at Daytona, NASCAR put together a horsepower-sapping rules package that over time became the Great Equalizer — the faster cars are still faster than the slowest, but the gap is dramatically narrowed.
That equalizing leads to bigger packs of cars, elbow to elbow and nose to tail. As the 200 laps tick away to 150, 160, 170 and beyond, you watch the Daytona 500 the way you watch a pot of water just as the tiniest bubbles begin appearing.
You know full boil is coming, but you’re not sure exactly when, until all hell breaks loose. They don’t guarantee such things at the ticket window, but they probably could.