Red flags are the worst for drivers. They just sit there, alone with their thoughts, engines off and quiet after hours of an ever-rumbling cacophony, not moving after a race spent pushing their cars to the limit and beyond. When the red flag came out in Sunday's Daytona 500 with three laps left, drivers had an awful lot of time to think.
Six minutes and 42 seconds to be exact, an eternity for drivers accustomed to covering 20 miles in that amount of time, in which they think of nothing but the car ahead of them. There are a thousand ways to lose a race and only one way to win it, and that's not exactly a reassuring topic to stew on for so long so close to the end.
So it went for race leader Joey Logano, the nose of his car pointed down the racetrack, as he waited for NASCAR's cleanup crews to pick up the debris from a late-race wreck. "They give you the opportunity to think of everything," Logano said, and he meant that as a bad thing. Because he thought of a bad thing: Two other drivers who use the same engines as him had blown up during the race.
And it seemed that Logano's No. 22 Ford was having troubles, too. Now, with 7.5 miles left, swallowed by silence, his mind was racing but he was not.
His first thought: "Ah, crap."
His second: "Once you get over the fact you're about to throw up, you can figure out how you're going to win the race," Logano said.
Would his engine stay together under him? Would he keep the field behind him? Would he lift the Harley J. Earl Trophy, one of the most revered race trophies in American motorsports, and thus redeem the years he spent in NASCAR's wilderness as an overhyped and underachieving driver, forever ending the question of whether he would ever fulfill his potential?
He could think about those things. But he couldn't do anything about them, sitting there silently, unmoving, pondering the three biggest laps of his life.
All he could do was hope. And hope is what the Daytona 500 is all about.
Well, hope and controversy. The week leading up to the race was a mess for NASCAR.
NASCAR loves controversy, especially surrounding the Daytona 500, and has since the very first one, in 1959, when the finish was so close NASCAR spent three days figuring out that Lee Petty, father of the future king, won. Whether NASCAR actually needed those three days, or was milking them for the headlines – that's part of the controversy. Or, as Richard Petty said in Big Bill: The Life and Times of NASCAR Founder Bill France Sr., the official biography of NASCAR's patriarch: "That was a PR deal. Bill Sr. knew my daddy had won that race."
But this week was different. These were real-life issues amid the silly NASCAR controversies (such as Danica Patrick confronting Denny Hamlin because Hamlin got too close to her in a qualifying race and caused her to spin, which is like being mad at somebody for taking part in the race) the sport feasts on weekly.
On Friday – less than 48 hours before the biggest race of the season – NASCAR indefinitely suspended Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion, after a family court commissioner in Delaware said he believed the "preponderance of evidence" showed Busch committed domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, Patricia Driscoll. On Saturday, Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, broke his right leg and his left foot in a horrifying crash in the Xfinity Series race, NASCAR's equivalent of Triple-A.
So instead of Saturday night being about the anticipation for the race, it was instead about Kurt Busch's two failed appeals of his suspension, Kyle Busch spending the night in the hospital and drivers criticizing Daytona International Speedway for not having SAFER barriers on the interior wall Kyle Busch hit.
Kyle Busch hit a concrete wall nearly head-on at an estimated 90 miles per hour. Track president Joie Chitwood III had a press conference Saturday night in which he said the track was wrong to still have concrete walls there – a startling public confession even if it was obviously and indisputably true and the media had been harping on the issue for years. He vowed the Speedway would begin working immediately to install SAFER barriers everywhere on the track.
By Saturday night, Speedweeks – the NASCAR celebration in the place of its birth – had spiraled so out of control that Jenna Fryer, the Associated Press NASCAR writer, tweeted this: "Is this happening? My head is spinning." So much had happened it wasn't entirely clear what she was talking about.
Still, as the race approached, that edge drivers felt from seeing one of their competitors endure such a brutal hit started to be sanded away. The pomp overcame the circumstances. After all, the Daytona 500 is the pinnacle race of the season, part Opening Day, part Super Bowl, total celebration of all that makes NASCAR so fascinating. The race represents rebirth – for drivers, for teams, for the sport.
And there were stories about that everywhere, even if only Logano's ended well.
Tony Stewart climbed gingerly out of the pickup truck that drove him around the track so he could wave to fans before the start of the race. Other drivers jumped out, but he took it easy, better safe than sorry after nursing a broken leg for nearly two years. He strutted along pit lane as he passed dozens of cars and hundreds of fans and crew members. He winked at, hugged, fist bumped and shook hands with many of them.
Then he stopped at driver Kevin Harvick's car, of which he is the co-owner. Keelan Harvick, Kevin's son, was sitting in the window, sunglasses perched atop his nose under his blond hair. Stewart put up his fists, pretending to pick a fight with the two-year-old. Then he smiled and encouraged Keelan to pick his nose and wipe it on his dad. When Keelan instead tried to pick his dad's nose, Stewart smiled and started walking to his No. 14 Chevy.
This was vintage Stewart, oozing confidence, messing with people, totally comfortable in his element – the Stewart who has been largely missing for two years. This was supposed to be Smoke's big day, his return to being "Tony Stewart" after two years dealing with injury and the death of a racer who walked onto the track and was struck by Stewart's car in Upstate New York last August. He vowed at preseason events that all of that was behind him, that the old Tony Stewart was back.
He has made a career out of winning big races at big times, and Sunday seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to win his first Daytona 500. But he never came close. Stewart's hope died after less than a quarter of the race, when he tagged the wall and threw his steering out of whack. He finished 42nd out of 43.
While Stewart's rebirth fizzled. Logano's was consummated. Logano replaced Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009 when Logano was just 18. So big was the hype that he was derisively (and jealously) called "Sliced Bread," as in "best thing since." And then…nothing much.
Logano was an also-ran in four season with Joe Gibbs Racing, and he gained a reputation as a driver who would not fight back when pushed. He left Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2012 season, and it appeared his career might be over before it really began. He signed with Penske Racing and was better in 2013, and he became a championship contender last year before the team imploded in the final race of the season. Even with that disappointing ending, Logano, 24, looked like he would fulfill the promise that made him so hyped in the first place.
Winning the Daytona 500 proved it. After he finally restarted his engine and the race, he kept the field behind him, and when cars deep in the field wrecked, the race was his.
Long after it ended, Logano was still glowing, words tumbling out of him as if he waited a lifetime for this speech on this stage. The Oscars had nothing on him. He said he was thankful for failing because it prepared him to succeed. That's wisdom, hard-earned. He had a long time to think about it.