It was a beautiful day, the sun shining brightly in a brilliant blue sky.
Perhaps it could have been taken as an omen -- except that has happened many times previously, and hardly could be counted on as a certain harbinger of good times ahead. On this Sunday, however, the perfect weather and the nearly full grandstands at Daytona International Speedway provided the ideal backdrop to something truly special.
No doubt there are many racing purists who will be quick to disagree. There were drivers who participated who stormed from the 2.5-mile track Sunday night cursing this new and strange and volatile way of making circuits around NASCAR's most famous venue. Some car owners and crew chiefs felt the same.
But the fact of the matter is that Sunday's 53rd running of the Daytona 500 was exactly what NASCAR needed to jumpstart its 2011 season. And it capped a Speedweeks that had just enough of everything else compelling to add true, legitimate optimism to the hopes that it can be used to help launch a season in which sagging television ratings and faltering attendance figures may perhaps become topics of the past.
Think about it. What did NASCAR need the most Sunday?
A strong crowd? While it appeared perhaps the infield did not have quite as many campers as in some previous years, the grandstands, which seat 146,000, were very nearly full and the crowd seemed engaged from start to wild finish.
Compelling action on the track? Not everyone liked it -- but the race had a record number of leaders, lead changes and cautions. There was dicey action throughout as drivers attempted to execute the tricky two-car drafts now required of those who hope to make it around Daytona quicker than the rest, and especially toward the end.
Someone different and refreshing in Victory Lane when it was all said and done? Say hello to Trevor Bayne, the youngest driver ever to win a Daytona 500 at 20 years and one day. Yes, Saturday was his birthday -- and yes, this race had all of the above.
Not only all that, but NASCAR's present and possible future met head-on with its storied past, as Bayne was driving a Ford fielded by Wood Brothers Racing. They hadn't won a Daytona 500 since 1976 -- three years before the last time the track had been repaved and 14 years before Bayne had been born.
It was more feel-good icing to a Speedweeks that already had been sweet on so many other levels.
"You know, we struggled so much the past couple of years just to make the Daytona 500, much less win it," co-owner Eddie Wood said. "This is so special."
For a sport that has struggled to find a way to have its fan base and the general public embrace the Jimmie Johnson era, it was a shot in the proverbial arm. This isn't meant to denigrate nor diminish what Johnson has done, for it hasn't been easy and the fact that he finished 27th Sunday hardly means he is going away in his quest for a sixth consecutive title.
Johnson is a good guy and a fine champion who represents his sport well.
But Bayne is a fresh face. He's young, he's good-looking, he's downright charming -- and as he proved not only Sunday but even earlier during Speedweeks, he can drive the wheels off a fast race car. His last name also is not Johnson.
Sunday's win proved that sometimes the nearly impossible can happen. A rookie driving for a team which had its best years seemingly decades behind them simply is not supposed to contend in the Daytona 500, let alone actually win it.
It should get the racing world's attention, and maybe even alert the younger crowd that hasn't exactly given NASCAR its rapt attention lately that this is an action-packed sport worth another look.
More than one race
Can one race really accomplish all this? Perhaps not. Then again, Sunday's crowning moment for Bayne in Victory Lane was about more than his one fine day in the sun.
Bayne's unlikely win was merely a fitting end to a Speedweeks filled with compelling storylines.
First of all, it was a time to remember the late Dale Earnhardt, who passed away in a last-lap wreck of the Daytona 500 10 years earlier. There were all kinds of tributes and lots of story-telling -- in print, on the world wide web, on airwaves or simply in the garage stalls and restaurant booths where all who knew him or worked with or around him gathered throughout.
Then his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the pole for the 500. Despite the fact that he later got wrecked during practice and was forced to the back of the field in a backup car for the start of Sunday's race -- and despite the fact that he got wrecked again late in the race after a strong run -- it was a fitting piece to the Speedweeks story.
So, too, was the brotherly shove that Brad Keselowski gave to brother Brian during one of last Thursday's Gatorade Duel -- pushing Brian into a 500 when it had seemed as unlikely, well, as a Trevor Bayne victory in the 500.
And likewise, Michael Waltrip's win in the Camping World Truck Series race last Friday was a fitting piece to the Speedweeks puzzle. Waltrip won the 2001 Daytona 500 -- and even after getting wrecked out of the 2011 Daytona 500, he embraced the spirit of the day and the raw energy that seemed to emanate from it.
"You're going to see some crazy stuff today," he predicted after his car was parked for the day after just 28 laps. "A lot of people don't get it. This is the Daytona 500 and we've been sleeping all winter, waiting for this race.
"And when I woke up this morning, it was a beautiful day. The crowd is amazing, the stands are packed. All of our sponsors are here."
Then Waltrip, who owns Michael Waltrip Racing, said he was going to go climb atop a pit box and "become a fan" to watch the rest of the race. He picked a good day to do that.
The powers-that-be in NASCAR no doubt have good reason today to hope there were plenty of others paying attention.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.