DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When the clouds finally opened shortly after 8:30 this morning, when the sun came out and the multi-colored cars lined up for dissection from NASCAR officials, when the corporate pit tours began and the rumble of normally aspirated engines filled the air, the excitement was palpable.
The NASCAR suits like to call this the Super Bowl of auto racing. They plan on trotting out Ben Affleck, Whoopi Goldberg, even President Bush as proof that the 46th running of the Daytona 500 is as big as anything in professional sports.
But to truly feel what it means -- to truly sense just how big of a deal the Great American Race is -- you have to be here. Just ask Derek Lowe, who spent his last weekend before Spring Training sleeping in his car outside Daytona International the night before the big race.
What was Lowe doing sleeping in his car? It seems he forgot to book a hotel, and none were available when he rolled into town. At 4 a.m., he awoke and drove into a Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot, where he scored the last parking spot before walking into the track to check things out pre-dawn.
"That doesn't happen in baseball," Lowe said of the hotel and parking crises. "This blows baseball away. To come here, meet all these drivers, see the cars, I can't tell you how much respect I have for these guys seeing what it's all about -- it's awesome."
From now until race time, ESPN.com will take you inside the gates, through the Daytona International Speedway underground tunnel and into the garages, the pits, the campgrounds -- everywhere you can imagine. We'll talk to the celebrities, the pre-race performers and the average fan, all in a quest to find what makes Daytona Daytona.
Walking through the garage area with Wakefield and his son, Lowe's head is on a swivel. While the imminent A-Rod trade surely bounces through his brain, the crew for Rusty Wallace's No. 2 Dodge is revving the engine in his garage as Lowe walks by. The 6-4 pitcher, impossible to miss, jumps.
"Sports is something where you have respect for everyone else who competes," Lowe said. "Especially when it's something that you know there's no way in hell you can do. I mean, man, I can't even drive stick."
Outside the track, things don't seem any different than they've been all week. Even in the garage area you wouldn't know that the President is going to be here. However, try to enter the pits and you'd think you were trying to enter the White House.
There are bomb-sniffing dogs, four metal detectors, special forces operatives and about 50 uniformed and plain-clothed secret service officials. For those looking to get into the pits, the line stretches 150 people deep, at least.
President Bush was at the Pepsi 400 last summer but this will be his first Daytona 500 appearance.
With hundreds of fans milling about in the infield, pre-race entertainment included a Chicago band called Near the Hero, a group of 20-something college kids who play frat rock. They played everything from Outkast to Jack Johnson to Sugar Hill Gang, to John Mayer, John Mellencamp and the Pretenders.
However, nothing energized the crowd more than the last song -- the Devil Went Down to Georgia, fiddle and all.
Actor Ben Affleck was originally scheduled to give the starting command, but got nudged out of the way when President George Bush was chosen. Affleck, instead, will settle for the honor of driving the pace car.
"I was like, 'Bumped? Who's bumping me?'" Affleck said. "They said the President of the United States. So I'm like, 'OK. I'm getting bumped.'"
Affleck, wearing a black leather Daytona 500 coat, was downright giddy about driving the pace car, but lept out of his seat when Lowe and Wakefield walked into the media interview room. Affleck is a die-hard Red Sox fan.
"Sup fellas?" Affleck said. "What are you doing here?"
"Watching you crash the pace car," Wakefield said.
Asked who he thought would win the race, Affleck said he didn't have a preference but he was leaning toward Bobby Labonte because of the No. 18 Chevy's hood paint scheme promoting Mel Gibson's new movie "The Passion of the Christ."
"They have Jesus on their side," Affleck said. "That begs the question for the other drivers -- why even show up? They have Jesus.
"I heard Kid Rock might be here too. But my money would still be on Jesus."
Despite weather reports that claim everything should be clear for the race -- a local weatherman used the term "a-okay" this morning -- dark clouds continue to linger over the racetrack. It's not raining at the moment, but things look dicey in the sky.
Forget the stereotypes about NASCAR fans. The loud, obnoxious, beer-guzzling types are few and far between in the infield on race day. Instead, it's all about big business.
Many sponsors offer tours of the garages for clients, employees and friends of the company, with everyone in the group wearing the same hats and walking in tight packs.
Chapel service began without us, but closed doors merely provide an interesting obstacle to overcome. ESPN.com found an open window, and peering through, watched as NASCAR President Mike Helton introduced all the organization's bigwigs, as well as a celebrity list including Evander Holyfield, Greg Norman, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Carl Banks, Whoopi Goldberg, Miss America and Florida native Ericka Dunlap, as well as Lowe and Wakefield.
Drivers, team owners and the celebrities all attended the service.
If there's anything unique about the Daytona 500 garage area, it's that you never know who's standing around the corner.
Like Evander Holyfield, who could barely make his way through the garages without being swarmed by fans. While handshakes and pictures were cool, autographs weren't.
Holyfield, who attended the race last year, said he's always been drawn to the family atmosphere of NASCAR teams.
"You take a company who's going to invest their money in a driver and then they need to have mechanics with all the technical skills and people with personality," Holyfield said. "It's like one giant family. And I'm a family person. And a people person. So I love it."
As for who he planned on cheering for in the race, Holyfield's allegiances lied in his pocketbook. Holyfield, who is a spokesperson for Coca-Cola, said he was backing all the teams his "favorite soft drink" sponsored.
"We're all part of the Coke family," he said.
Want a strange sight? How about New Jersey Nets forward Rodney Rogers using his NBA All-Star break to come to Daytona and walk around the garages sporting a Dale Jarrett cap.
Turns out, Rogers is a lifelong NASCAR fan. ("I'm from North Carolina, it's all about NASCAR," he said.) And there's nobody he enjoys cheering for more than Jarrett.
To clarify, that's a 6-11 African-American basketball player cheering for a 47-year-old caucasion race car driver.
"I like all the drivers," Rogers said. "No -- don't put that. He'll kill me.
"Seriously, I've always liked Dale. He drives a Ford. And I like the way he goes about things."
Driver introductions have begun, and almost on cue, the weather improved. Most of the dark clouds have drifted away, the sun is now peaking out over the track, and temperatures are around 70 degrees and pleasant.
Meanwhile, crew members now are learning why Helton thanked them for their patience during the team meeting earlier. Each and every crew member is being thoroughly checked -- metal detectors, clothing removal and full pat-downs included -- before being allowed into the pits.
Clearly visible from multiple perches around the track, including standing atop the press tower, are numerous snipers who are scanning the pits, the crowd and everything in between with high-powered binoculars.
Just another day at the races ...
Affleck's premonition is correct: Kid Rock is here.
Hanging out in Tony Stewart's pit, the bad-boy of rock is chatting with crew members while Jaime Pressly stands at his side. Yes, you read us correctly, it's not Pamela Anderson on his wing.
Word is that Kid Rock and Stewart have been friends for a few years and that Joe Gibbs Racing invited him to the race, sending an airplane to pick him up in North Carolina, where the rock star was staying at his parents' house.
While Nextel's pre-race pageant wales on with music and dancing, a motorcade of six black suburbans pulls onto the track from Turn 4.
Out pops the President. Wearing a black Daytona 500 jacket, President Bush steps out of his vehicle and begins shaking hands with NASCAR crew members and fans alike.
Now it's clear why security on pit row was of the utmost importance.
After greeting fans, President Bush looks on while Lee Greenwood sings his hit song "God Bless the USA" (Proud to be an American), children sing and sway, Rocket Man perfectly executes his parachute landing and the song concludes with booming fireworks.
Bush is interviewed on television, where he uses the time to thank NASCAR and its fans for supporting the armed forces.
The President also says that while he likes speed, having flown fighters in his National Guard days, he wouldn't want to travel at 210 mph around Daytona's high-banked corners, as Bill Ellliott did in setting the track speed record.
Over in Kyle Petty's pit, while the First Lady snaps pictures of military members, one of Petty's crew calls out, "Hey, haven't we got a race to run?"
LeAnn Rimes sings the national anthem, the Stealth bomber flies overhead for all to hear (but seeing it isn't quite so easy).
President Bush delivers the command, "Gentlemen, start your engines."
Sorry, Ben. You got bumped.
Speaking of Affleck, he's doing just fine, wheeling around the track in a bright yellow Corvette pace car. Whoopi drops the green flag and racing is underway. For rock stars, movie stars, sports stars and the average fan, it's the moment they've been waiting for. It's Daytona.