Simpler, happier times return to Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sunday was a lovely time to walk the pit road at Daytona, feeling good about nearly every face you saw, feeling better about this place than you'd felt in an awfully long time.

The real racers were back.

Some wouldn't have made it here if the busted economy hadn't run off the for-profit types and made room for those who come because they love it.

Take Jeremy Mayfield, fresh off his farm with a 19-day-old race team, he suddenly could afford to build himself. Geoff Bodine, not running well, but not bad for a man of 59. Derrike Cope, no more or less a dark horse now than when he won the Daytona 500 out of nowhere in 1990.

Some say Daytona 500 Pole Day is a useless day, but it's anything but that for those who go into it needing a lift in spirit and hope.

There was Martin Truex Jr., standing there in his understated pride, minutes after his lap at 188.001 mph that he felt, but was not certain, would hold up for the pole. This, after he'd hung in through the painful merger of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing over the winter.

Because the swirl of restrictor-plate racing leaves the pole virtually useless after the race starts, Truex agreed with what I've long realized: that the pole for the 500 means a lot more in North Carolina than in Florida or anywhere else.

It's for the always anonymous "guys back at the shop."

"Absolutely, I believe it is," Truex said. "All the guys who were uncertain about their jobs, and about what they were going to be doing, just three or four months ago. It's a helluvan effort, after all they've been through.

"I'm just proud to be the one who was able to sit in that car today."

By the end of the day Truex had the pole, and beside him sat Mark Martin at 50, with a 187.817 lap that was faster than all three of his younger Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Martin has labored through 24 previous Daytona 500 starts, but never once from the front row.

He was robbed of his best shot at winning this race, in 2007, when NASCAR failed to throw a needed caution at the end of the race. But, he said, "I didn't let it eat on me a lot."

But now you could see him tasting the thought of winning this race again, after all these years, this deep into his twilight.

"Everything else that I've done in my career would fit around this," he said. He tried to bridle his hope. "I'm a one-step-at-a-time guy. But this is definitely the best group of people and the best stuff I've had. I'm grateful.

"If you'll remember, in 2007, I wasn't mad we didn't win. I was grateful we had a chance."

There stood Bill Elliott with "mixed emotions" after his run, "disappointed in one respect that we didn't get the pole."

But he'd had a shot at it, for the first time in a long time, and still was fifth fastest for the day. That was enough to assure him of a starting berth on time next Sunday, regardless of how he fares in his qualifying race Thursday.

"Here we're stacking up with the best guys," he said of his Wood Brothers team, which will run only 12 races this year. "Right up there on the board. And this is a low-funded team."

And a one-car team, competing against the armadas from Hendrick, Roush and Gibbs.

Happiest of them all was Mayfield, "probably the happiest I've ever been coming into a Daytona 500 and Speedweeks," he said. And having more fun, "by far, than at any time I've been at Cup level."

Mayfield was only 43rd fastest of the day, but, hey, what could you expect from a team less than three weeks old?

"We know we can get better than we qualified; we just ran out of time," he said. "I'm sure we'll be competitive on Thursday. I know we will."

Elliott and the Woods are down to 43 people in their shop, but Mayfield's team will number 20, after he hires more pit crew -- this against numbers such as the 550 at Hendrick.

"This is a small team, yet we've got everything we need to race with," Mayfield said.

"So I don't understand how the teams got so big to start with. I'm still trying to figure that out."

And there it was. He made the most important point of the past decade in NASCAR, and of this day, when the real racers could come back because the hyper-funding and the hyper-staffing were no longer necessary.

Would he even have attempted such a startup last year?

"No way," Mayfield said. "I wouldn't have thought about it six months ago. I didn't realize we could do it for what we're doing it for. Things changed over the past three or four months that made it possible for us."

Layoffs in the NASCAR industry made labor cheap. Teams folded or merged. Cars went up for sale at bargain prices. The testing ban left every team, big and small, equally in the dark.

"We're going to be competitive," Mayfield said, "and we don't have any R&D."

Suddenly, the price of racing in NASCAR is more reasonable than it's been for 15 or 20 years.

Hard times have come to NASCAR, but Sunday made this official: The simpler, happier times, when you can feel good walking the pit road at Daytona, are back.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.