My Brain on NASCAR: Chinese takeout with a fortune cookie

At times, a race weekend can feel kind of like a multi-course meal — a nice Asian dinner is a great example — with a variety of items being served up in rapid succession. While we appreciate it at the time, it can be a lot to properly digest, so we often entrust it to the care of our old environmentally-sketchy friend  styrofoam and carry it home where we can enjoy it later, at a more leisurely pace.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Daytona International Speedway. From the green flag at the Sprint Unlimited to the checkered flag at the Daytona 500, one event leads into the next so quickly that there is barely time to breathe. Now that Daytona is in the rearview mirror, we have time to revisit, re-taste and reflect on what will surely, for good or ill, be some of the most-remembered moments from Speedweeks 2013.

The appetizer course started with the eggroll heard ’round the world, as one of the most popular drivers ever produced by the great state of Wisconsin grabbed headlines on Coors Light qualifying day, and I’m not talking about Matt Kenseth. Danica Patrick, who has endured more than her fair share of both criticism and skepticism since moving from IndyCar to NASCAR, smoked the field to win the number one starting position for the Great American Race. She backed it up, too, running up front all day and eventually finishing eighth.

In the process, Patrick became both the first woman in history to start the Daytona 500 — and any NASCAR event, for that matter — from the pole position, and the highest-finishing woman in the history of NASCAR’s biggest race. She was impressive, to put it mildly, but early headlines for the March 3 race at Phoenix International Raceway included “Danica Patrick Has Little Chance of Winning at Phoenix” and “A Longshot at Phoenix.”

Come on, people; can’t we let the woman have even one week to enjoy some glory? Apparently not.

We first enjoyed — and then didn’t — the hot and sour soup course, courtesy of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race on Feb. 23. For the most part, this was a great race. Fans got their first good luck at some up-and-coming superstars, and the competition was close, exciting and featured all kinds of drafting. It was hot.

Tragically, things turned sour late in the race when a multi-car crash sent young driver Kyle Larson flying into the catchfence, leaving half of the car and all of the engine in the grandstand. Dozens of fans were injured by debris, but thankfully, there were no fatalities. The most bizarre photo of the weekend was the shot of a wrecker hauling off half of a race car that literally been torn in two. Tony Stewart, who won the race, showed nothing but class and concern as he rushed through his Victory Lane interviews before rushing off even faster to check on the injured fans.

I don’t know what to compare the Daytona 500 pre-race ceremonies to, so “the weird thing on the plate that you can’t quite identify” will have to suffice. Some big names, including Tim McGraw and the Zac Brown Band, performed early in the day, but when the national anthem rolled around, the mic was handed over to Clay Cook, a member of the Zac Brown Band.

Mr. Cook did a serviceable job, but is it petty to ask why, since obviously all the members were there, did the entire group not perform the anthem? I’m all in favor of giving unknown singers their shot, but this is the Daytona 500 we’re talking about. “X Factor” auditions are conducted in a different area of the FOX network studios.

Also, actor James Franco’s movie portrayal of “Oz” might be great and powerful, but his brief moment as grand marshal was neither: “Drivers — and Danica — start your engines!” That was just insulting.

For the main course, the new Gen 6 car welcomed back an old style of competition in the Daytona 500: pack racing. It was pretty cool to see those long “freight trains” barreling around the track again, but it would have been even cooler to see more than one of them at a time. The fast lane at Daytona was right up against the wall, and that’s where most of the cars stayed for the majority of the day.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead on the final restart and hung onto it for the win, despite a late charge from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second. “There is no other way to start the season than to win the Daytona 500. I’m a very lucky man to have won it twice,” Johnson said after the race, his 400th start in the Cup Series.

After being cracked open, the dessert course offered us this morsel to chew on: “You will experience an interesting year.” Cryptic, but if what we have seen so far is any indicator, that’s one smart cookie.

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