At 6 o'clock Friday morning it's all seagulls and solitary walkers on Daytona's famous speed beach. The birds flap and squawk and the rhythm of the surf washes in and out across the hardpack as dawn boils up behind the clouds. The boardwalk attractions are still dark. The palms rattle, dry as paper. And I'm still not sure what the big story of this 500 weekend will be.
There's no central narrative this year except the changes to the cars. No real arc of interpersonal drama, no rising conflict that's Aristotelian or Chekhovian or even Hatfield/McCoyian. The papers and the dot-coms will try to sell you Danica Patrick, because there's not much else to sell. She's more interesting than a four-color PowerPoint table of suspension settings, certainly, but I'm not sure she'll be a factor for 2012. She's still tentative and too thoughtful and doesn't have the hang of sliding and banging these ponderous cars around. Once she gets it, if she gets it, the sky's the limit. But for now, if not gathered up by another big kaboom, she'll likely run in the middle.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sells page views too, but mostly on the strength of his appeal to focus groups. He's as smart and charming a young man as I've ever met out here, but how hot he burns to win a race has always been an open question. He remains instead the cool and melancholy avatar of his father's legend. His Confederate sharpshooter-at-Chancellorsville beard adds a note of solemn poetry this season.
Then there's Gordon and Johnson and the Busch brothers; Stewart and Harvick and Kenseth and Edwards and Biffle and two dozen others who could win this thing. Racers all, every one, no matter how slick or airless or corporatized NASCAR's traveling medicine show has become. And all backed by some sort of factory-quality speed, by accomplished crews and engine builders and designers and fabricators and the kind of fancy magic that can only be made by the industrial application of money.
Sports predictions are the universal sucker bet. This is especially so in auto racing, where the technology and the cash and the bad hand of chance play equal parts. Who knows who might win it. That's why we watch.
Out here machinery is show business, and in service of racier racing, the bosses changed up the tech package this year. Now the constant Rube Goldberg recalculation of fuel injection and restrictor plate and spoiler angle and grill opening and water temperature and suspension tuning has everyone flummoxed. Everything you touch affects everything else -- push down here and something pops over there -- in new and unexpected ways. All at once the cars are light in the tail and skittish at almost every angle of attack. A harsh word or a hard look at the quarter panel of the car in front of you can send it spinning.
To the extent possible, NASCAR recalibrated all of this in the interest of entertainment to break up not only the traditional mass-draft formations of years past, but the more recent two-by-two bumper car pairings as well. The result of this experiment will be made public Sunday. Forecasts I've heard around the tool box call for showers of debris and a partly crashy afternoon.
That same evening back down highway 415, they'll play the NBA All-Star Game, so mid-Florida feels like the center of something this week. On live local TV last night, I saw President Barack Obama deplane in Orlando for a fundraiser. Then I watched the downstate Heat beat the Knicks.
I mention this because in the 10 years since I first came out here to write a book, NASCAR has spent a lot of time and money and burned up a fortune's worth of public goodwill to make itself more diverse. I can't say yet if that effort has succeeded or failed. It's not obvious, which might be a kind of partial answer. But I need more time to talk to folks and to take it all in. It's an important part of what I've come back to see.
Still, whether the colors in question are black and white or red, white and blue, or merely green, the Great American Race remains the Great American Metaphor. All of us racing in circles as fast as we can, going nowhere, chasing a buck.
By 10 the sun's high and hot and the safety recording plays again and again and again at the go-kart track. The skinny kid opens the Ferris wheel as the cop pedals past on his bicycle. The wind shakes the trees. The pelicans light on the pilings and wait for the tourists.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.