What makes NASCAR’s Daytona 500 special

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/David Graham)


There was a moment, about an hour before Sunday’s Daytona 500 and about four hours before the race’s epic and historic conclusion, when I finally got the chance to ponder a question that some might consider important.

Where am I?

It was too loud to be heaven. Too cool to be hell. Too spectacular to be anywhere else.

I looked around and saw hundreds of thousands of people turn the Daytona International Speedway infield and grid and frontstretch into their living rooms: A few wore only sunburns as shirts. Some sang along to Dierks Bentley on top of their friends’ shoulders. Many wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats and chugged cowboy elixirs.

I’d heard about this place before arriving. I knew it was right off the beach, where summer lasts nine months and where motorsports history breathes. I’d heard the Daytona 500 was racing’s “Super Bowl.”

But that didn’t prepare me for the day itself.

With the infield full and with light beer flowing around me, my eyes still glazed over in existential wonder: How did I get here? What makes people drive and fly from across the country to be here? How many Sprites have I drunk today, and how many more can I drink before it becomes a problem?

I was also transported to another time and place.

A quick story: I am born and bred North Carolina. NASCAR’s in the atmosphere here. Always has been. I’ve earned a paycheck as a sportswriter for just over three years now and have made three year’s worth of mistakes. All this culminated in the first NASCAR race I ever covered: the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2022.

I wasn’t yet working at The Charlotte Observer — I was helping out with the paper on an off-day covering high school sports and Winthrop basketball for The Herald in Rock Hill — and I remember looking at the racetrack and thinking I’d never been to a sporting venue so big. I didn’t know anything: not even how to fetch my parking pass. After somehow parking and sneaking through various checkpoints all the way to the media center, I proudly walked through the door, relieved.

“I’m looking to get my credential,” I asked the first person I saw.

“What?” she responded. “How did you get in here?”

I was then turned around and sent on a scavenger hunt on a golf cart. I chatted away my embarrassment with the very friendly racetrack employee who was driving me. I asked him about the place that he’s worked at for decades, and he told me how over the years he’d worked with David Poole and Tom Higgins, writers for The Charlotte Observer who defined motorsports coverage in their eras. I word-vomited my love for local journalism — it’s pretty much all I talk about — and he responded with a similar love for racing. He told stories about old drivers and about old traditions and about the old racing magazines he used to shoot photos for. He waxed poetic.

I was entranced as he talked. I imagined what all this sport means and has meant to so many in this state, the only state I have ever called home. I saw champions. I saw heroes. I thought about the storytelling possibility.

All this to say: 10 months later, on Sunday afternoon in Daytona, I felt similarly. I was in a trance again.

Speedweeks featured some long hours. I wrote about Bubba Wallace and Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin’s new podcast and actor Frankie Muniz’s new dream of becoming a racecar driver. I covered Travis Pastrana qualifying for the Daytona 500 on speed, Conor Daly qualifying on luck and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. beating odds on belief.

JTG Daugherty owner Jodi Geschickter, at her celebratory press conference, explained why she didn’t believe the result until a few minutes after the fact: “I try not to get our hopes up,” she said.

But the magic of a place like Daytona is that trying to suppress hope there is a futile effort. Thank God places like that exist.

Alex Zietlow writes about NASCAR, Charlotte FC and the ways in which sports intersect with life in the Charlotte area for The Observer, where he has been a reporter since August 2022. Zietlow’s work has been honored by the N.C. and S.C. Press Associations, as well as the APSE, which awarded him with Top-10 finishes in the Beat Writing and Short Feature categories in its 2021 writing contest. He previously wrote for The Herald in Rock Hill from 2019-22.

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