Emotional Speedweeks lead up to big event

It’s possible there has never been a more compelling Speedweeks than the one that is playing out at Daytona International Speedway this season.

How can today’s Daytona 500 possibly top the events leading into it?

While the competition on the track – and the rule changes aimed at making it more familiar – have certainly been headline items, this 10-day stretch has been much more about heart, about emotion and about healing.

The 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 loomed over this event, adding a sense of sadness and nostalgia to the proceedings.

And then emotion took over – and not all of it centering on Earnhardt.

This Speedweeks has, in many ways, offered an uplifting look at the people making this their livelihood.

If you believe in the healing power of emotional moments, look at Michael Waltrip. He came to Daytona to celebrate the life of his friend Dale Earnhardt – and perhaps to find something to help heal those wounds still open after 10 years. He did just that in winning Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race.

If you want to root for an underdog, go no further than Brian Keselowski, a young man who built the car that he ended up racing into the Daytona 500. He’s stirred the emotions of fans everywhere.

If the world makes you question the kindness of human nature, take heart in the friends and relative strangers stepping in to help Keselowski’s dream even better by supplying needed ingredients for the 500 run.

If you’re a diehard fan of NASCAR’s past, enjoy Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott returning to the Daytona 500 field once more. Or Joe Nemechek, a man building his own team and continually finding ways to get into the races week to week. Or Robby Gordon, also paving his own path into NASCAR as an owner-driver.

There’s Jennifer Jo Cobb turning in the top finish by a female racer in Truck series history. Dale Earnhardt’s grandson Jeffrey Earnhardt finishing seventh in that race, joining winner Waltrip in making the 10-year anniversary of Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 an even more emotional day.

Darrell and Michael Waltrip hugging in Victory Lane. Michael clinging to his daughter, Macy, as he tried to take in winning on the exact day he won 10 years ago – the day he lost his team owner and friend, Earnhardt. Brad Keselowski hooking onto the bumper of his older brother Brian’s car and pushing him into the Daytona 500. J.J. Yeley and Keselowski‘s plain, sponsor-free cars wheeling their way into the Daytona 500.

The images flip through one’s mind.

The storylines hearken back to the days of grassroots racing, bring back memories of how racing once was and how fans sometimes wish it could be once more.

Chief among those is Keselowski, the darling of Daytona activities after he took his essentially two-man team and made it into the race, with a little push from his more successful and established kid brother. He brought warmth and humanity to Speedweeks.

And Waltrip. After 10 years, he’s spent the past month discussing his memories of both Earnhardt and of sitting in Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway and learning that Earnhardt had died. He published a book, he put his emotions on his sleeve, bared his soul for a watching NASCAR audience. He decided to come to Daytona carrying the No. 15 from that day, to try to race his way into the 500 (he made it), race a black truck in tribute to Earnhardt (he won in it) and also compete in the Nationwide race.

When he made the 500 field, he struggled to contain his emotions. When he won the Truck race, they overflowed. He is the heart of Speedweeks.

And Cobb. She’s a powerhouse in the sport, but not in terms of popularity or power. Rather, her power comes in her inner strength. She’s captured the imagination of young women racers everywhere, the ones who won’t be afforded the opportunities of a Danica Patrick. She owns her Truck series team, is trying to compete full time in Nationwide this season, and just turned in the top finish of her career. She’s brought guts and determination back to Daytona.

And don’t forget Yeley. He’s battling the odds as well. He’s one of a group of drivers in the 500 – joining the likes of Blaney, Regan Smith and Nemechek – just fighting for a chance.

And finally there’s the spark of Trevor Bayne and Landon Cassill. Bayne, the 19-year-old who turned in a wicked fast qualifying lap to pretty much secure his spot in the field, then ended up meting out advice to four-time champion Jeff Gordon as they worked together in the draft during the Gatorade Duel. He’ll start deep in the field Sunday after being caught up in a crash later in that race, but he’s captured the imagination of a generation of teenagers and is proving that good things do happen to good people.

So did Cassill, the 21-year-old trying to get a foothold in the series, as he mixed it up with the veterans on Saturday afternoon and then pushed Tony Stewart to the win and finished third.

The field today is filled with stories of triumph and tragedy, of moments that fire up or endear fans.

The stories this week have been human and heart-warming, gut-wrenching and uplifting.

What will Sunday bring?