Throughout Sunday morning, Feb. 20, the Daytona Beach air was electric, buzzing with an anticipation not felt, at least to that degree, in years. Many felt it, mentioned it. The grandstand was packed and the prerace entertainment decidedly Southern.
There was a palpable optimism, a sense that 2011 could be a cornerstone chapter in NASCAR's comeback story.
As Martina McBride completed a hair-raising National Anthem -- sung how it's supposed to be sung -- I began to make my way to the No. 29 team's pit stall. On the third lap of the Daytona 500, there would be a silent tribute, three fingers raised by every attendee in honor of Dale Earnhardt. I wanted to be with his team during that emotional moment.
The 29 pit was down toward Turn 1, and the walkway to get there was packed with people. I knew I'd never reach my destination in time if I didn't take an alternate route. So I grabbed my buddy, ESPN the Magazine senior writer Ryan McGee, hopped the pit wall and took off down pit road. It was empty, save for a few crew members sweeping their pit stalls and the team of NASCAR officials who work pit road every weekend.
As I walked I offered well wishes to many but stopped to shake just one hand, Leonard Wood's. I grew up in Virginia. My father's mother was born and raised on a farm in Stuart, just around the corner from the Wood brothers' homestead. I know what Wood and his family mean to folks back home. For decades they've proved small-town boys can make it big. There is a strange hope in that -- that people just like you can do amazing things.
Suddenly, a hair-raising realization hit me. The cars were rolling off. This was the Daytona 500. This was the moment I'd spent months waiting for and a lifetime dreaming of. And here I strolled, on the racetrack -- on the racetrack -- with the cars as they sped off into battle.
I can't lie. I was wide-eyed, humbled and plumb tickled, and I could tell McGee was, too. Like me, he completely understood and respected how impossibly rare and special this moment was. We hustled to the 29 pit and giggled all over ourselves, making sure we took copious mental notes of the experience to share with our children someday.
Several hours later 20-year-old Trevor Bayne was parked in Victory Lane and square in the American mainstream consciousness, a captivating, gracious and gregarious young man who achieved the impossible. He is the type of kid every father prays his daughter brings home, chivalrous, selfless and refreshingly unaware of what he'd just done.
It was an achievement that reminded us of heroes lost.
There is hope in that and it subsequently gave hope to NASCAR racing. But how do we follow that up? How do we harness that momentum and push it forward?
Easy. With a good ol' classic American comeback story, a redemption piece, one born from a once-hated silver spoon now humanized by an unforeseen topple from the pinnacle.
Jeff Gordon's win at Phoenix was the perfect way to continue the momentum from Bayne's Daytona 500 triumph. It was unexpected yet historic, and it wasn't handed to him. Gordon went and took it. That was the true beauty in it. For the first time in a long time, he hunted down his prey and completed the kill.
In recent years, as Gordon's nearly decade-long dominance of the sport became a distant memory, fans who once utterly loathed him suddenly had empathy for his struggle. Near miss upon near miss led many to consider him washed-up, done, shelved. He even began to question whether he'd lost the fire.
But Sunday, on the very same track that three seasons ago saw him equal his greatest and most respected rival, Dale Earnhardt, in career victories, he moved into a tie with legendary Cale Yarborough for fifth all time on the wins list. Two more and he'll own sole possession of third.
As I sat and watched Gordon and his boys spray champagne Sunday, I happened to look at his race car. It looked like a race car is supposed to look. It had an air dam on the front and a spoiler on the back. No wings. No spice rack. And there was confetti all over it. It looked like a big red Christmas gift.
And for NASCAR and many of its fans, that's exactly what it was.
After I interviewed Gordon about his win, I happened upon a longtime industry acquaintance who had been part of many of Gordon's wins over the years. He noted how different this one was from any he could remember. Gordon was completely engaged, thankful, relieved and, oddly, validated.
He soaked up every second of the moment.
We all should follow suit.
There is hope in that.