Some people think auto racing fans show up just to watch crashes. But it's not about the crashes. It's about the specter of the crash, about drivers making a vehicle go so fast, pushing it so hard and beating the other guys by getting as close to the edge as they can without going over it.
And nowhere will NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers push it as far as they do at Daytona.
Today's Great American Race will run for 200 laps, each one more tense than the last. There will be more than 200,000 fans inside and around the high-banked, 2 1/2 -mile tri-oval track. Millions more will watch what's referred to as the Super Bowl of auto racing, a nickname that's true right down to the commercials: Ads featuring a total of 20 drivers will make their debut during today's broadcast.
But this year there's one area where drivers aren't quite sure how far they'll be able to go. NASCAR has promised to penalize drivers for aggressive driving, notably those who use bump drafting techniques in areas -- the turns and the bend of the tri-oval -- where previously a gentleman's agreement was in place.
"We don't know where the line is until somebody crosses it," said Elliott Sadler. "Until somebody gets called in [to the pits] for a penalty, nobody really knows where the line is, but I'm sure we're gonna push the line and push the envelope a lot."
Bump drafting is a technique born out of drivers pushing the limits. NASCAR makes them drive cars with restrictor plates that dampen the horsepower (otherwise Daytona and Talladega superspeedways would see 200 mph-plus speeds that are deemed unsafe). So in order to get an extra edge, drivers have resorted more and more in recent years to bump drafting, knocking into the back of the car in front of them so that both cars get an aerodynamic boost.
But what happens if -- and when -- NASCAR throws the equivalent of a penalty flag?
"After that happens, it will send shockwaves through the garage," said Rusty Wallace, the newly retired former series champion doing television commentary. "Those crew chiefs will be reminding drivers about it in the last 15 laps. Because you don't want to have two laps to go in the Daytona 500 and have to come down pit road (to serve a penalty)."
Bump drafting was also born out of how competitive the series is -- everyone thinks he can win, so everyone seems willing to do whatever it takes.
"I've been here since they started this stuff, and this is probably one of the few times I've been here that there wasn't one or two teams I thought was dominant or a little bit better than everybody else," said seven-time Daytona 500 champion Richard Petty. "This is probably as even a field as I can remember."
There are contenders everywhere. Jeff Gordon qualified in the second spot, won a qualifying race and was so pleased with his car he didn't even participate in Saturday's final practice.
Defending series champion Tony Stewart, seeking his first Daytona 500 win, won July's Daytona race and won Saturday's Busch race in a car that was rebuilt as the race went on. Mark Martin won Friday's truck race and said for his last Daytona 500 start, "We have as good a car as I've ever had for the 500."
The race is likely to start slow. The front of the pack will be content to stay there for a while because despite speeds of 180 mph that keep cars stuck to walls banked at 31 degrees, the race is a 500-mile marathon, not a sprint.
At some point there will be "The Big One," the crash that wipes out a significant portion of the field, often spectacularly, because eventually the drivers of the close-running cars will get fidgety and run out of room.
"You're going to have the middle of the pack on back getting crazy throughout the whole race trying to get into position," said Gordon. "And then you've got everybody getting crazy at the end."
All week, through the bump drafting blather, that's the one thing everyone has agreed upon.
"It's a 500-mile race, and things are gonna be pretty calm until 20 to go," said Greg Biffle. "Then everybody is gonna be racing for that million and a half dollars."