DAYTONA BEACH — One thing NASCAR drivers could agree upon during Thursday's annual media day is when it comes to this year's Daytona 500, expect the unexpected.
Last year's race was marred by delays when a small pothole developed between Turns 1 and 2 during NASCAR's marquee event. The race was eventually delayed for more than two hours.
The 2.5-mile high-banked trioval has been repaved for the first time in 32 years, leaving drivers unsure of what to expect. The race is Feb. 20.
"You know, it's going to be a lot different this year," said Jamie McMurray, the reigning Daytona 500 winner. "The Daytona 500 can be won in the last hundred yards. It's such a unique race. With the fact that the track has been repaved, there's going to be a little bit of a learning curve, I think, for all the drivers to figure out where they need to be — if you want to be in second on the last lap coming to the start/finish line, if you want to be in first. The Shootout is going to be really important. The 150(-mile qualifying race) is going to be important to set yourself up to be in the right position. As excited as I am to come back here winning the race last year, there's so many new things that go with this race, so many unknowns, you just don't know."
It is believed the new pavement could make Daytona less of a handling track than in the past, but 2006 Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson has high hopes for the surface.
"From our standpoint," said Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, "we have less to separate ourselves with on the track during the race, but I think it will be in perspective, and for the Daytona 500, we're going to have the best circumstances and the best race we've seen."
FOR THE LOVE OF RACING: It's not easy being Joe Nemechek these days. The Lakeland native owns a NASCAR racing operation, NEMCO Motorsports. With rising costs and the struggling economy, things aren't easy.
"Every week when I'm paying the bills, I ask myself why am I still doing this?" said Nemechek, the 1990 NASCAR Nationwide series rookie of the year. "But I love to race. I love to do what I do. I'm good at it. I've won races, I've won poles. I know what it takes to get the job done. So you're still out there looking for that second chance."
Nemechek said he'd like to see NASCAR do more for the smaller teams.
NOW, JUST NASCAR: Juan Pablo Montoya is in the final year of his contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and hopes to settle things relatively soon.
"I hope so. I assume so," he said when asked if he'd like to remain with Chip Ganassi after this year. "I don't know. I haven't really talked too much about it, to be honest with you."
Montoya said he hopes to have his contract settled before the end of the year, but one thing he knows for sure: He's not leaving NASCAR.
"I'm really happy here and never will go back (to Formula One), to tell you the truth, said Montoya, the first Formula One driver to compete full time in NASCAR. "It's very different. Someday I'll go watch and take my kids to watch a Formula One race, but that's as far as it goes."
CHANGING TIMES: Veteran driver Mark Martin said it hasn't always been easy adjusting his skill set as drivers face massive changes due to the advancements in the cars. He said he's learning to adapt.
"It's coming back to me," said Martin, 52. "The multiple-caution, short-burst runs were not my strong suit. My strong suit was long runs, green-flag runs, managing the tires, and managing the equipment and making the stuff last.
"Well, the equipment got so good that you don't have to make it last anymore, although managing the tires can still be an asset to you if you manage them properly and if you can get everything out of them that you can get out of them — or getting too much and making them where they don't last, and also that you don't underuse them in the beginning.
"So that's a factor, but it's still coming back to my style right now. Green-flag racing … that's racing, to me."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.