As I write this, February is only a matter of days away, and the arrival of February can only mean one thing: It's time to head to Daytona for Speed Weeks and eventually the grandest spectacle in NASCAR, which of course is the Daytona 500.
At the latest count, there are 54 cars vying for the 43 available starting positions in the 500. Bad economy? What bad economy? Though the Daytona 500 is indeed the biggest race of the year, and subsequently has the biggest purse of all the races, the fact that 54 teams are attempting to make the field in 2009 shows that some small teams are taking advantage of recent team shut downs and mergers to toss their collective hats into the Daytona ring.
It's been announced that Kirk Shelmerdine, who began his NASCAR career as a crew chief, will attempt not just the Daytona 500, but all 36 races in 2009. Shelmerdine will drive the 27 Ford as an owner/driver in attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500. Who says the days of owner/drivers are over? Just look at Robby Gordon.
Another owner/driver is a man we have not heard much about lately. Jeremy Mayfield will reportedly attempt to qualify an as yet unnumbered Toyota in February. Derricke Cope and Joe Nemechek will also attempt to qualify in cars they own.
Another surprise, at least for me, was seeing car owner John Carter on the early entry list. By all accounts, Carter, a northeast Georgia businessman, had ceased operations late last year. Apparently, however, the 08 Dodge lives, and making yet another attempt to qualify the car will be none other than James Hylton, who ran his first race in 1964, the year after this writer was born. James Hylton was 29 years old at the time. I'll let you do the math, but don't count Hylton out. He's nearly qualified at Daytona in just the last few years.
In other news that I personally consider to be surprising, JR Motorsports Nationwide series driver Brad Keselowski will attempt to race in his first Daytona 500, piloting the 09 Chevy with Miccosukee Resorts and Gaming as a sponsor. The car is owned by James Finch, and while Brad is in the car, Hendrick equipment will be used. It's reported that Keselowski will attempt several Cup races in the car this year, and when Brad isn't in the car, the team will switch to Dodge and other drivers. This is not unheard of in NASCAR, but it's a phenomena we have not seen since the 1980's. I personally want to wish that team well, and I feel that Brad Keselowski has a bright future ahead of him as a Sprint Cup driver.
There will once again be two Labontes attempting the starting grid in 2009. Bobby Labonte, in his new ride in the number 96 Ask.com Ford, has owners points as the new driver for the Hall Of Fame Racing team. In a rather unprecedented move, HOF switched from Toyota to Ford, and has aligned itself with Yates Racing, which means that the 96 car will have some of that famous Yates/Roush horsepower under the hood in 2009. Brother Terry will attempt to make the field in the MSRP Motorsports owned Toyota. Remember, Terry Labonte does have the 2nd most recent champion's provisional, so he has an excellent shot at making the field. It will be nice to see both Labontes on the track again.
One other owner/driver who will be attempting to put his car in the field is Norm Benning, who we last saw in a Cup race in 1993. Kelly Bires will attempt the race, as will Mike Wallace, Mike Skinner, Carl Long, and the most famous head of hair in all of NASCAR, Boris Said.
One other driver I'm happy to see at Daytona in 2009 is almost winner, and 2008 Rookie of the Year Regan Smith, who will be qualifying the number 78 Furniture Row Chevy. Regan's ride basically dissolved after the 2008 season at Dale Earnhardt Inc., which is now Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. One of my greatest fears going into the 2009 season was that last year's ROTY would not even have a ride in 2009. Smith has some good skills as a driver, and I wish him well.
It's time to buy your favorite driver's new hat and tee shirt, a truck load of your favorite beverages and snacks, and as Larry MacReynolds says, pull on those belts one more time and get ready for NASCAR, 2009. It's just around the corner, and it's time to get it on!