Daytona 500 commercials not bad, either

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick stares steely-eyed into the camera, his eyes focused straight ahead and his right hand wrapped firmly around the handle of the six-shooter in his holster.

"Give us a s***-eating grin," the director tells the driver.

Harvick has no problem getting into character, giving the camera one of those play-with-your-mind looks he gave Denny Hamlin often during the final three races of the 2010 Chase, the kind John Wayne and Clint Eastwood so naturally gave before gunning somebody down.

Yes, Harvick is playing the role of a cowboy. He's wearing a black hat, shirt, scarf, vest, pants and boots. If that's not enough to make him look meaner than a rattlesnake, then the bushy black goatee and 6-inch black sideburns do.

"I missed my calling," Harvick says after several quick draws into the camera in front of a green screen at a Speed TV studio.

Harvick is shooting his segment in a Wild West commercial for the May All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and NASCAR president Mike Helton taped their segments in the past week at Whisky River, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s playground western town on his Mooresville farm.

Helton, by the way, is a natural as the sheriff.

Harvick seems glad he doesn't have to be around the other drivers for his part, jokingly saying, "I don't like those guys."

Harvick didn't realize when he got this racing gig that he had to be part-time actor. Sometimes he feels like it's a full-time job, having shot a commercial for new sponsor Budweiser two weeks ago and four other commercials over the past two months.

Throw in countless photo shoots, and Harvick has been in front of the camera as much during the offseason as he was during the Chase.
Most of NASCAR's top stars go through the same thing.

"That was a little bit of an eye-opener in the beginning," Harvick says as he finishes the shoot. "But after a while it gets easier."

This commercial will debut during the weekend of the upcoming Daytona 500, as will one called "Vrooom" that Harvick shot for Budweiser two weeks ago at Richard Childress Racing.

The Daytona 500, NASCAR's so-dubbed Super Bowl, has become almost as important commercial-wise to sponsors, teams, tracks and the governing body as the NFL championship game has become to those who invest a reported $3 million for a 30-second spot to promote their products.

There will even be a certain percentage of the Daytona 500 audience that tunes into the Feb. 20 event only to see the commercials, just like on Sunday when the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers meet in Super Bowl XLV.

Not that anybody is suggesting Daytona commercial audiences compare to those of the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl telecast reaches about 106 million households and covers about every demographic on the planet.

The Daytona 500 reaches about 30 million households with a much narrower audience.

And some people have better Super Bowl commercial memories than Super Bowl memories, something you never hear about the 500. Who will forget the Xerox monks or the Budweiser Clydesdales and frogs? Or the original GoDaddy.com girl nearly losing her top? Or the Miller Lite spot in which two women end up in a fountain wrestling in their underwear?

Or the cat-herding commercial from Electronic Data Solutions? Or the "wassup" Bud commercial?

"A lot of times that's all that's worth watching at the Super Bowl," Harvick says with a laugh.

You won't see as many lizards, monkeys and big-screen celebrities in Daytona 500 commercials as those in the Super Bowl. NASCAR sticks primarily to its drivers promoting sponsors that appear on the cars and upcoming races on the schedule.

There have been years when only one NFL player has starred in a Super Bowl commercial.

"Our drivers have been synonymous with their brands," says Steve Phelps, who was a 15-year veteran of NFL marketing before joining NASCAR in 2005 as the chief marketing officer. "So the Daytona 500 to kick off our season, the best race of the year, is the best way to break these new advertising spots."

Budweiser, for instance, doesn't need Clydesdales and frogs when it has Harvick. GoDaddy.com doesn't need another pretty face when it has Danica Patrick.

"I can tell you one thing, if racing didn't work for us we wouldn't be doing it," says Barb Rechterman, the chief marketing officer for GoDaddy.com. "Daytona to its audience is huge. It stacks up well. The performance is [strong]."

If it wasn't, NASCAR sponsors wouldn't spend the money they do for the commercials we'll see at the Daytona 500, and drivers wouldn't spend the time they do to make the sponsors happy.

"Our guys are the heroes of this sport," Phelps says. "That's who the fans want to see. For us, brand association with our sport is critical. It's also effective."

Unlike Harvick's Budweiser commercial that is centered around the No. 29 team and the anticipation of the race, Harvick speaks in the All-Star commercial shoot.

Let's return to the set where the director is running over the lines of other drivers to get to Harvick's big moment.

"The gloves are off, Carl," says the director, pretending to be Hamlin.

"And I'll be takin' home the million, Denny," the director says in her best Edwards impersonation.

Now it's Harvick's turn. Realizing he'll have to cut his eyes at another screen and pretend he's looking at Edwards makes getting into mean mode all the easier considering the turbulent history between the drivers.

"Only if you finish first, Edwards!" Harvick says with a scowl on his face.

"Perfect!" the director shouts.

Several more takes are shot and Harvick sounds meaner each time. Perhaps he really is thinking of Edwards.

"I guess it was kind of a natural fit," Harvick says afterward. "It's fun. Anytime you can have fun with it, that's the best part of it."

And sometimes the most fun part about commercials is picking your favorite. Everybody has one. Harvick is partial to the old Budweiser ads with the frogs.

Here's a look at my five favorites from past Super Bowls and Daytona 500s:

Super Bowl

1. Coke, "Mean" Joe Greene, 1979

Anybody who says the sentimental jersey toss by Hall of Famer "Mean" Joe Greene to a starstruck kid in the tunnel of a football stadium didn't stir emotion is lying.

2. Noxzema, Joe Namath, Farrah Fawcett, 1973

Dating myself here. But anytime you pair two sex symbols like Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath in a commercial with shaving cream and Namath opening with, "I'm so excited. I'm going to get creamed," it's hard to beat.

3. McDonald's, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, 1993

How often do you get to see two of basketball's greatest players in a game of extreme H-O-R-S-E with the winner getting a Big Mac? You can't help but laugh as this one ends with Jordan sinking a shot "off the expressway, over the river, off the billboard, through the window, off the wall -- nothin' but net."

4. Diet Pepsi (Just One Look), Cindy Crawford, 1992

Cindy Crawford in a tank top and jean shorts. Do I need to say more?

5. Snickers, Betty White 2010

There may be more popular choices. But you have to admit the scene of a weekend pickup football player being chided for "playing like Betty White out there" only to have the ageless White appear and say, "That's not what your girlfriend said," is priceless.

Daytona 500

1. Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2000

Maybe it's because it's the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death, but the commercial of the "Intimidator" and his son and the Chevy Monte Carlo Taz going at it, driving around the track, is a classic. It begins with Earnhardt in the backseat telling Taz he needs to "go, go, go" if he plans to catch anybody. It moves to Earnhardt Jr. in the passenger seat shaking his head and going "blah, blah, blah." It then returns to Earnhardt saying, "What did you say? Guess my seven championships are clogging up my ears."

It ends with Earnhardt in the driver's seat saying, "Around here, there's two ways to do this." Earnhardt Jr. interjects, "There's my way," and Sr. says, "and the wrong way."

By the way, Earnhardt wasn't thrilled at having to drive that red Taz car in the 2000 Daytona 500 as part of a GM Goodwrench advertising scheme. He crashed it late and wound up 21st.

2. Coke, NASCAR drivers, 2010

It's hard to beat a commercial that opens with Tony Stewart singing "I'd like to buy the world a home," followed by Kevin Harvick singing "and furnish it with love," and so on through several drivers until the entire Coke theme song is completed while they're all beating and banging each other on the track. By the way, they all need to keep their day jobs.

3. Toyota, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Greg Zipadelli and Michael Waltrip, 2009

This one that features kids controlling life-size remote stock cars on the track with the drivers inside is outrageous on many fronts, from Tony Stewart's long hair to the two-time Sprint Cup champion's tossing a helmet at his own car to Denny Hamlin's backing over a stack of tires and having the Toyota fan controller instructor saying, "That was completely inappropriate."

4. UPS Brown Truck, Dale Jarrett, 2005

UPS wrapped up its long-running "Race the Truck" campaign by having Dale Jarrett step into a boardroom and finally agree to drive the brown truck. It gets really funny when Jarrett returns to the room at the end and asks everyone to keep it quiet after news had spread across the world -- even to China.

5. Sprint Nextel, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, 2006

Sprint Nextel, as it was known then, kicked off a flip-phone spot by having fans chant for Carl Edwards to do his celebratory backflip in the garage. Next thing you know, then-Roush Fenway Racing teammate Mark Martin pops up behind his old No. 6 car, communicates via his phone walkie-talkie to a stunt double in a helmet to begin an incredible tumbling routine over the car and eventually off a stack of tires. Martin then reappears from behind the tires like he'd performed the flips himself.

Edwards ends the commercial saying, "Crazy old man."

Now that's showbiz -- NASCAR style.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.