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Thursday, February 10, 2011
Lather, rinse, repeat at the cluster function


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Welcome to a cluster function -- to a day that would be hell if it really mattered.

Six a.m. on the beach, still dark, drizzling, well into the second cup of coffee, and on the local cable news channel the sports anchor chirps:

"Daytona Media Day today. We're all over it!"

Everybody's all over it, all over the drivers, all over each other.

This'll be a cluster function, all right. As usual.

Out the door, down the elevator, into the rental car, across the Port Orange Bridge as the rain intensifies, up Clyde Morris Blvd., out to International Speedway Blvd., all in the predawn gloom.

The cluster function starts officially at 8 a.m. but you'd better be there an hour early if you want space in the working area. Once set up in the big tent, you deal with some pretty rough coffee and wait … and get glad-handed by the steady stream of publicists.

First you congratulate the NASCAR people on their slick scheduling move. They've made Jimmie Johnson the first up, at 8 a.m. That'll draw the brunt of the media in early. And that should get all the Truck series drivers booked around Johnson some interviews they wouldn't otherwise have gotten.

In years past, media types didn't have a very good record at showing up early for Truck and Nationwide drivers. Johnson forces everybody's hand.

The NASCAR people chuckle and nod, never denying they planned it this way, with Johnson as the drawing card.

But Johnson spoils my angle right on the dot at 8 a.m. when I ask him how it feels to be dragged out early as media bait.

"I picked the time slot," says JJ, morning person.

"I've always been that way. My dad, working construction, was always up early and out the door. I'd get up and have some breakfast with him before I got ready for school.

"So it's just kind of been my wiring since childhood."

Good thing they've got one star who's a morning person. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't be in until 12:30 p.m. -- and that's early for him.

Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is never short of media attention.

Nine a.m. and here I sit in the work area, just off the main stage of Speed Channel's ongoing live talk show, squinting into the lights, listening to my digital recorder.

You should hear what I have to hear. Here's Johnson, the softest-spoken driver in NASCAR, barely discernible at best, and somebody's had the great judgment to put his interview booth right next to a roaring blower for the big tent's ventilation system.

On top of that, just as I think I've extracted a mumbled Johnson phrase from the recording of the blower's roar, laughter explodes from the guys on the Speed set as somebody cracks a joke.

Back up the recording. Play it back. Back it up. Play it back. So it goes.

Here comes Danica Patrick into the grinder, with her PR handlers. First she's up on the Speed stage for live talk with the panel. Then she'll go to Fox and then ESPN for preseason interviews, then to Sirius satellite radio, then before wide firing lines of local TV crews, then to print media.

That's pretty much the cycle for all drivers today. We call it "the car wash."

Danica arrives at her print interview booth 10 minutes late, and a crowd has long stood gathered round, surrounding her, four reporters deep.

"I thought Jimmie Johnson was over here," she cracks as she sits down.

For all drivers and all reporters, in all booths, before all cameras, the task is the same.

Everybody is trying to think of a question the drivers haven't already been asked during preseason testing and/or the media tour in January.

And the drivers are trying to figure out how to phrase the same answers differently.

And everybody is failing.

This is a cluster function, all right.