My brain on NASCAR: Daytona 500 a real dog-eat-dog event

In perhaps the only time these two sporting entities may ever be mentioned in the same sentence, I always enjoy watching the Westminster Dog Show (WDS) this time of year, because it reminds me a lot of NASCAR.

Held each February in Madison Square Garden, the WDS assembles the superstars of the canine community in one place, and then pits them against each other in head to head – and muzzle to muzzle, and whisker to whisker – competition, gradually weeding down the field until only one remains. There is some circling and snarling, some preening and parading, and more often than not, a tussle or two.

Pre-event favorites fall early, while sometimes unlikely candidates – underdogs, you might say – have been known to make a late charge to win it all.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Minus the floppy ears (insert your own joke here) and wagging tails (see insert your own joke here, above), we might be talking about the Daytona 500.

While the WDS and the Great American Race may seem on the surface to have absolutely nothing in common, there are actually a number of parallels to be drawn.

Both events are at the very pinnacle of their genres. Each incorporates preliminary levels of qualification prior to the main event. Both feature a wide variety of competitors with an array of different attributes, but one common goal: They all want to win.

At Westminster, participants compete against one another in group shows before going on to what is called the All-Breed Show.

Daytona uses the same system. Its pre-500 group show is called the Gatorade Duel, and it is fierce, as drivers fight for the best possible starting position in NASCAR’s most prestigious event. Some will prevail and secure a prime starting spot – for whatever that’s worth — while those who find themselves at the proverbial tail end of the pack will be relegated to watching the race from the doghouse sofa.

In sports, it is usually pretty easy to define “the best.” The best hitter is the guy with the highest batting average; the best shooter is the player with highest field goal percentage, and the lowest overall scorer snags the win in golf.

But when the discussion turns to individual events, things get a bit stickier, and this is particularly true in the case of the Daytona 500.

Any given sport’s opening day certainly brings its share of excitement and anticipation, but it isn’t the biggest day of the year; it is merely a means to get there. The Daytona 500, however, is the most highly anticipated day in NASCAR. This is the race that non-race fans will make it a point to watch.

Daytona isn’t the oldest track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit – that distinction belongs to Darlington Raceway – and it isn’t the longest, as Talladega Superspeedway beats it slightly. When you get right down to it, the race isn’t even the most exciting of the year. Poll a group of fans and you’ll find out in a hurry that the night race at Bristol holds that particular title.

But poll a group of drivers and you will discover that if they could win only one race in a single year, or even in a single career, that race would be the Daytona 500. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s one ring of power, you’re not sure why you need it, but you’re certain you can’t live without it. Where’s the fun without the mystery?

In sporting competition, as in life, nothing is ever a sure thing.

Just ask the Malachy the Pekingese. Compared to everything from one of the stars of “The Jersey Shore” to one of the most popular characters from “Star Wars,” the 11-pound upstart took on bigger, faster competitors to beat out, among others, a German shepherd, a Dalmatian and a Doberman pinscher to claim the title of 2012 Westminster Dog Show champion.

Better yet, ask Trevor Bayne. Neither Snooki nor Wookiee, the 20-year-old Trevor was definitely a rookie in 2011, yet he still managed to hang on and win the 2011 Daytona 500, in one of the most feel-good stories of the season.

Now that I think about it, maybe there is one sure thing, after all. Regardless of breed or bearing, whisker thickness or muzzle strength, where NASCAR’s early season is concerned, there’s no question about the identity of the top dog.

The Daytona 500 title winner is undoubtedly the Best in Show.

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