DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
If Jimmie Johnson's competitors have designs on keeping him from winning a sixth consecutive Cup title, they need to get up a lot earlier than they did for Thursday's media day session. Johnson was not only willing to take the early morning time slot, but anxious to get it out of the way.
Johnson has proved to be NASCAR's best driver of his generation, but has just one victory at the Daytona 500, and that came in the 2006 race when his crew chief, Chad Knaus, was ejected from the garage area for cheating. Johnson realizes that Richard Petty is remembered as much for his seven Daytona 500 victories as for his seven NASCAR Cup championships. That's why Johnson is focused on scoring his second win in this contest on Feb. 20.
As for being the first driver out of the gate at Media Day, Johnson admitted it's how he is "wired."
"It doesn't hurt being a morning person," he said. "I thought I was a morning person until I became a father. Now, I'm officially a morning person. Before, I could sleep until 9 sometimes, but 9 is not an option any longer."
Danica Patrick still draws a crowd. It is another indication that celebrity status and personality still trumps productivity and accomplishment. Consider that during Patrick's session with the media, there were close to 50 reporters huddled around her table or near the speaker set a few feet away recording her comments. Across the way, there were just eight media members interviewing Jamie McMurray, the defending Daytona 500 champion.
Winning the Daytona 500 is supposed to change a driver's career and it still does -- just don't schedule the defending winner's media availability at the same time as Danica's.
"Last year I understood a lot of what was going on because it was my first year and it was very new," she said, "but to come over here and have all the crowd, I'm very flattered. It makes me want to perform more all the time because then I want to come back.
"I'm not about taking attention away from anyone. That's not my motive at all. For me, there are pros and cons to it. You are watching if I do well and you are watching if I do badly, too. I feel lucky -- I'm lucky that people care about my story and want to read about it or hear about it. I guess I feel weird when you all are not around."
Patrick is in the final year of her IndyCar contract with Andretti Autosport and her NASCAR Nationwide Series deal with JR Motorsports. If she asks herself which series gives her the best chance to win, then she would have to pick IndyCar. However, if the question becomes which series can she earn the most money, then that would be NASCAR -- just as long as the novelty of her presence continues.
How many times can Dale Earnhardt Jr. possibly answer the same questions about his father's death? This is the 10th anniversary of the darkest day in Daytona 500 history, when Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the last turn of the last lap of the Daytona 500. Dale Jr. was just ahead as he finished second behind teammate Michael Waltrip. There was no celebration that day, only deep, dark sadness. Now, 10 years later, everyone wants to know Junior's thoughts on the death of his father.
Admirably, Earnhardt has answered the question with tremendous respect, whether it be at last month's preseason test or at the NASCAR Media Tour in late January. Unfortunately, he won't get any relief until after this year's Daytona 500 is over.
"I don't really dread this," Earnhardt admitted. "I've dreaded Media Day on many occasions because it's the story I've dreaded. But this is no big deal. The anniversary of my father's death isn't on my mind as much as my performance."
Kevin Harvick is going to be roasted on Tuesday night and he's already dreading the verbal shots that he will be taking from, among others, Tony Stewart, his mentor Ron Hornaday, Jr. and his wife, Delana.
"I'm going into it knowing I'm going to get slammed but I have the last word so they all better be careful," Harvick warned. "I know one thing -- not to slam my wife. But I'm most worried about Hornaday. Even though I'm his boss, that doesn't really matter. He's got stories, pictures, whatever."
Harvick hopes to roast the competition in the Daytona 500. His victory in 2007 was one of the most thrilling in the past decade. With a new track surface allowing three-wide racing, could we be in for a similar finish?
Harvick expects the nature of the race to change but two-car drafts probably will not be the way to go.
"The difference between here and Talladega is it's only so wide at Daytona," Harvick said. "Here, it will be three-wide but it's going to be door-to-door-to door. One of the cars will be up against the wall and the other will be close to the apron. When it's three wide, there won't be anywhere to go for those breakaways."
Trevor Bayne doesn't turn 20 until Feb. 19 but instead of partying with his friends, he'll be roughing it up on the track in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona. Bayne will also drive a limited Cup schedule for the Wood Brothers.
Ironically, as NASCAR's youngest driver was speaking, it was next to 52-year-old Mark Martin, who returns for yet another season.
Jeff Gordon once admitted to me that there are times he missed out on his "growing up years" because he was too busy racing. Perhaps Bayne is too young or naïve to see the innocent times of his life because they are so recent. He has big career goals and competing in both the Nationwide and Cup Series are his focus.
"I definitely see what Jeff is saying," Bayne said of Gordon. "It takes a lot of sacrifice, but that's why only a few get to do this every weekend. It's missing birthday parties when you're five years old to go to the go kart track, but looking at it now, there's nothing I would rather do than be sitting here ready to run the Daytona 500."