In a wind-up worthy of the Indy 500 (which lasts most of a month), qualifying for next Sunday's Daytona 500 took place yesterday. I'm sure millions of NASCAR fans, desperate for some racing to follow on Sundays, breathed simultaneous sighs of relief. I'll admit, I followed the qualifying online, though I got my start-of-the-season fix a few weeks ago with the 24 Hours of Daytona.
To the media's credit, there have been plenty of story lines followed, including last year's winner, Trevor Bayne, needing to qualify on speed (only 43 cars can start, but 49 attempted to qualify), how last year's championship duelists (Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards) would fare (Edwards took the pole), how the new cars and engines would run, and ... oh yes, how that new girl would do.
Yep, Danica's finally starting her first full year in stock car racing. She'll compete in a few Sprint Cup races (NASCAR's top tier), and compete the full season in the Nationwide (second-tier) series. It's safe to say anticipation is high. It's also safe to say she'll be in the spotlight constantly, since she's driving for reigning champion Tony Stewart in Cup and media and fan darling Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in Nationwide. If you had to pick the three drivers the racing world most wants to drool over, it would be them. Every move will be scrutinized and dissected, all season.
Now, I know Simon's not a big fan of Danica's, but I also know that has mostly to do with Danica being over-hyped compared to her level of performance. I've gone back and forth on how I feel about her. I was a huge fan at the start, and teared up when she led the Indy 500 in 2005. But like Simon, I've waited for her on-track results to match the attention she's received (Dale Junior's another one we're waiting on for the same), and I lost some of my desire to root her on each weekend. But recently, I've read a few articles about her and interviews with her, and I have to say that the more I read (from people who've actually had conversations with her), the more I'm impressed. She seems smart and focused and determined, and that's brought me back to being a Danica fan, as she makes the move from open-wheel to stock cars. Basically, I'm optimistic that she'll live up to the hype this year.
Mind you, that's all going to be predicated on some real performance. But she did qualify 30th for the Daytona 500 (yes, she was locked into the field, but she qualified acceptably anyway). So we'll just see how she does in her first run with the big boys. I'll be rooting for her.
Oh, and Junior qualified third. We'll just see....