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Flat Spot On: Daytona Bound

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 20 2012

The racing universe is Daytona-bound this week. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It’s the time of year when the crisp, dry air seems to make the stars sparkle like the Hope Diamond.

Maybe it’s misbegotten optimism, but he’s up there as usual, marching low on the horizon from east to west with broad sword in hand. To much of the world, it’s Orion with his three-star belt and larger-than-universe stride. To me, it’s usually Beowulf, a bejeweled Anglo-Saxon hilt in hand, ready to slay Grendel, or whatever evil lays ahead.

Perhaps you can see this coming, what with the Daytona 500 at hand, but at this time of year, all that glittering beguiles the mind and these same white outlines on an otherwise dark sky become the Man in Black. He strides across the night sky when its time to pull out of the driveway in Atlanta for yet another midnight run to the consecrated ground of stock car racing speed.

Many in the outside world knows this sport like a comic book with super heroes or a wrestling match. Screw the poor bastards. Inside, it’s the story of Myths and Men, real characters who ride the wispy tide of righteousness, throwing sparks and chasing Ghost Riders In The Sky.

A great sport needs a great champion and the winner of the Daytona 500 is always considered such. But in the modern scheme of things, it’s a little like the Super Bowl in reverse, the Big Bang at the beginning of the schedule with about as much to do with winning the championship as the role the water boy played for the New York Giants in the victory over the New England Patriots.

‘They Must Be Giants’ wrote the headline writers at Sports Illustrated. Well, they haven’t spent much time

Jimmie Johnson was a polite champ. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

wheeling a stock car around a high-banked oval at synapse-snapping speeds. A great sport needs not only a stage that’s literally big but a great season-long champion, one who seems to take it by the scruff of the neck and carry it, a guy who makes the trophy somehow seem bigger.

So it goes at the time of year when the swirling limbs of the pecan trees in middle Georgia dance naked, all akimbo, in the search for The Man Who Would Be King.

Five-Time, I’m thinking, made it Big because he won in a way that made people sit up and take notice of the sport. Instead of a revolving door, stock car racing was where that good-looking guy Johnson wins every year. But unlike Cale Yarborough, Jimmie didn’t tell everybody he’d been struck by lightning twice while growing up, had been bitten by deadly Water Moccasins on six or seven different occasions and used to wrestle South Carolina alligators.

Five-Time didn’t wow the wives and young women, because Jeff Gordon had already done that. There can be only one King and Dee Dub-Yah is, well, best played by Himself. Jimmie didn’t invoke the Man in Black, either, because other than Johnny Cash who can? Mainly, everybody overlooked his Pearson-esque skills and come-from-behind ethic. But the Silver Fox also had that certain something that let you know he was what Junior Johnson admiringly liked to refer to as a horse’s ass.

Well, now. Here comes Tony Stewart. He knocks off Jimmie, puts Carl Edwards to shame in the process (instead of Denny Hamlin just shaming himself when it came to gut-check time in 2010) and who’s ever to doubt that this guy Tony is the kind of driver Junior would want wheeling one of his cars?

Watching Trevor Bayne win last year at Daytona and then writing up the ultimate glory of the Wood Brothers was a little like hearing the Vienna Boys Choir sing in the Sistine Chapel. It was quite an experience, and a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t quite define the mythical wheelman of stock car racing.

Probably the best description of Tony Stewart came from three-time Super Bowl winning coach Joe Gibbs,

Tony Stewart brought increased attention to NASCAR last year and could do it again this year. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

who said, “A lot of people just want to make the team. Tony wants to be great.” That was after Stewart won his first race at Daytona – a Shootout –and after he had blocked the Man in Black in Turn 3 during his first qualifying Twin, all the while looking like the Intimidator’s spitting image.

OK. Let’s face it. The Stewart-Haas Racing team not only had Hendrick Motorsports chassis and engines. The team found some aero tweaks that turned their Impalas into rockets for the kid literally from Rushville. Give any nine-to-five stock car driver an edge and he’ll whip through the field like an eel on a binge. Hand an advantage to Stewart and he’ll rip through the field as if they were, well, so much paparazzi.

Stewart challenged Carl Edwards and the Missouri man with the smile like a horse eating briars tried to sweet talk his way out of it. It’s kind of like the time Tiny Lund dragged Curtis Turner into the water at Lakewood and made him swear he’d stop poppin’ Tiny’s doors. Yep, Turner turned real talkative.

If there’s blood in the water again in NASCAR, it’s because Stewart rocked the house last year. So I’m picking Stewart, who is closing in on the record five consecutive Nationwide wins at Daytona held by the Man in Black, to win the 500, tandem drafting or not.

As for the Sprint Cup championship, Gordon, the guy with four championships, surely hears the striding footsteps of a three-time titlist closing in on him.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 20 2012
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