Daytona 500 in fits, starts and fires

Tuesday, Feb. 28, 8:35 a.m. ET

DAYTONA, Fla. -- By the time I boarded the plane in Florida Monday evening, the Daytona 500 was three laps old. Jimmie Johnson had crashed out and was already doing television interviews. After that I flew nearly 1,000 miles from Orlando to New York; waited 20 minutes for my luggage; stood in the longest line I've ever seen to get a cab; rode 14 miles home in moderate to heavy nightclub traffic, and walked through the door just in time to watch another two full hours of track repair, damage control, wrecking and racing. Crazy.

Congratulations to Matt Kenseth on not being gathered up and ruined by universal randomness as so many of his colleagues were. Kaboom! Another super-strange 500 comes and goes. Even allowing for the triple weirdness of Juan Pablo Montoya's car bomb, every restrictor plate race is now another argument against restrictor plate racing. The drivers hate it, and have been saying they hate it for decades. NASCAR seems to think the fans like it.

So. Milestone? Or punch line? Best race ever? Or worst in history? Does your taste run to Michael Bay? Or Wile E. Coyote? Having watched Speed Week from beginning to end this year, I'm not sure anyone at NASCAR can tell the difference.

Monday, Feb. 27, 11:15 a.m. ET

Another wet morning here at Daytona International Speedway, the sky flat gray and sad. The weather's bad enough that the surf's good, maybe 3 feet rising to 4 or 5 depending on the set. The surfers bob in the tumult just north of the pier.

The Daytona 500 was postponed for the first time in its history Sunday. Thankfully, the Oscars came off without a hitch. Maybe it's telling that two of the biggest events on our postmodern national calendar reward excellence in the fields of sensational vanity and sensational distraction. How we love watching others loudly do what we cannot.

Like the clockwork rise and fall of the moon and the stars, a ready-made hero will emerge from a vortex of fire and expensive debris in the last 400 yards to win the race. As one does every year. Yeehaw!, etc. I remind you that predictions any more specific than this are for suckers and sports writers. Especially at the 500.

So a couple of notebook additions only, as the Florida swing draws to a close.

I'm still not sure what the central narrative has been this race week. The press has been selling Danica Patrick, but I'm not buying. As a marketing matter, she's successful across all platforms. As a racer she needs to crash less.

Only matinee idol and keeper of the eternal Earnhardt flame Dale Jr. has managed as much face time downstage center.

He seems a real anachronism now. In the 10 years since I first began my NASCAR research, the drivers in general have become less Southern, more corporate, more camera-ready. They've raced from the cradle and have no life experience but racing. They're younger. They dip and spit less. They've never been anywhere but a racetrack. They seem inauthentic in the same way 21st century country music seems inauthentic.

But who out here could ever tell you what authentic is? Or was? Was stock car racing more real in 1950 or 1970 or 1990? Which was the authentic Petty? Which Allison or Earnhardt? As one generation succeeds the next, what part of this was ever any more real than what we see of it now?

This year's wrecks are real enough. Maybe that's the story. How the rulebook creates The Show. The 2012 version of the car is a little light in the hips, a little jittery in traffic, a little extra crashy. Never forget that the entertainment is a byproduct of the mechanical blueprint.

But technology, per se, is of little interest out here. This isn't Formula 1, and stock car racing's selling point has never been its cutting-edge science. (The car was always presented as the car you'd find in your driveway, even when it wasn't.) The new mechanical breakthrough with the greatest impact on NASCAR fans this year is probably the Chocolate Wonderfall at Golden Corral.

Of our national economic woes, evidence here and there. Fewer full-season sponsorships for the teams; some slack in souvenir and concession sales, maybe. Attendance holding.

Don't forget that the audience for risk has been fixed from the beginning of human time. What racing sells, what racing has always sold, is sex and death.

Which leads perhaps to this: Has anyone ever looked more awkward at a race track than Mitt Romney looked Sunday afternoon? He is torqued a few hundred pound-feet too tight to connect with the lascivious crowds here. He is introduced to a smattering of yawns, says that racing combines two of his favorite things, "cars and sport" -- which no one believes for even a second -- and hastens away.

Candidate Rick Santorum has instead sponsored a car. It will likely pull hard right all day -- two, three, four -- which is exactly the same joke I made 10 years ago when Liddy Dole ran a one-race sponsorship in the Busch series for exactly the same purpose. The theory being that if they'll buy the detergent and the beer and the buckshot because they see it painted on a car, maybe the voters will buy you, too.

Trouble is that politics still depends, in part, upon your left brain, and every racetrack everywhere is an absolute factory of right brain sensory overload. "Tax cuts may help grow the economy in certain circumstances," says Arthur Laffer to the left hemisphere of your brain. "Vrooooooooooom," replies the right.

Making sense of it all is thus senseless. It's nothing but guesswork and projection and loud noises. Still, it seems to me that we can read something of our own story between all these lines.

Once you bend the American century or the American Dream or the American frontier back on itself, maybe this is what you get: the impossible puzzle and lunatic deformities of the pioneer spirit redirected. Everything becomes its opposite, every assertion its contradiction. The only outlaws are corporate, and the renegades are all conformists. Close the loop, make everything a circuit of perpetual return and Manifest Destiny is remade as a brand strategy, a sales pitch. An ad platform. A hamster wheel.

Democracy is what you drink or drive; consumerism becomes citizenship; night terrors become foreign policy; self-doubt becomes a national political platform.

So the Great American Race is also the Great American Mystery, all of us locked at full throttle, the world a blur, going around again and again and again trying desperately to get back to where we started.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.