Media Day most racers' true nightmare

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For more than half an hour, several dozen reporters stood vigil around a chair, cameras trained and spotlights ready.

Curious onlookers would ask, from time to time, who was inside the media wall.

"Just a chair," was the reply. "And it's not talking."

While some Nextel Cup drivers sat alone at small round tables for great lengths of time, waiting to talk to somebody besides their public relations assistants, others drew giant crowds at the mere idea they would stop by soon.

The buzzing swarm referenced above was created, of course, by Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is NASCAR's rock star, and on Thursday's hectic media day at Daytona International Speedway, he was the biggest fish in an already large pond.

And while Junior looked totally relaxed in the middle of the crush that more and more follows him wherever he goes, his words betrayed that sense of ease.

"I don't understand the celebrity status that much, so it's hard for me to enjoy it," Junior said. "There's a couple [Cup drivers] that are as famous, and the things that I see them do I don't think I'd ever have the confidence to do. I feel like I've missed out on a lot of stuff because I'm kind of a shy guy when it comes down to it."

The defending Daytona 500 champion wasn't the only one in fine form on the day that officially brings closure to NASCAR's relatively short offseason.

"Hate to burst y'all's bubble, but this isn't what anyone dreamed of as a kid," said Kyle Petty good-naturedly. "Sitting here talking to you all at 2 p.m. on a Thursday, that wasn't it."

In a similar vein but strikingly different delivery, Tony Stewart, too, made it clear he'd rather be just about anywhere than in front of reporters making the rounds and asking, invariably, the same questions of the same drivers.

"I can't wait to be done with this," said Stewart.

The big subjects of the day are familiar by now to most fans of the sport. DEI's offseason swap between the No. 8 and No. 15 teams of Dale Jr. and Michael Waltrip; hard alcohol splashing into the so-called family entertainment arena; aerodynamic and qualifying changes for '05; and some second-year perspectives on the "Chase for the Nextel Cup" were gleaned.

But drivers' philosophical views on celebrity and what winning the Daytona 500 means fueled much of the day's conversations.

That, and the still simmering feud between Penske South Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace, who will retire after '05.

Asked if he could fully explain the rift and Newman replied, "How much tape you got?"

In summary, it seems safe to say that Newman and Wallace have different perspectives on and off the track, and the two aren't likely to agree on many things in the past, present or future.

When a lighter question was thrown Newman's way to ease the tension -- "What's the worst question you've been asked today?" -- Newman quickly answered, "That one."

After the laughter died, Newman politely countered -- with a smile that appeared equal parts mischief and malice -- that he wasn't trying to be funny. "Really, how can I answer that question?"

There were other revelations to be had on this day, a full 10 days before the Daytona 500 kicks off the real madness that makes NASCAR and soap opera fans similar souls.

Jeff Gordon revealed that he wants to go on an African safari and also swim with sharks, but that his racing schedule makes doing these things very difficult. But when he retires, well, bring on the wild creatures. And maybe some more appearances on Live with Regis and Kelly, or Saturday Night Live, which Gordon hosted and enjoyed this offseason.

Just no movies.

"From what I know about making a movie, that's not me," Gordon said.

The best one-liners of the day belonged, however, to the less celebrated Nextel Cup drivers. They were the ones playing it loose while few seemed to notice.

Scott Riggs wasn't impressed with the quality of the paper name tag identifying him, so he folded it around a freshly-chewed wad of blue gum.

"That's me this season," said Riggs, the second-year driver expressing his desire to have a little fun in 2005 after what he called his worst year in racing (he finished 29th as a rookie Cup driver).

"I've pushed the blinders out of the way," he said.

So did Mike Bliss, but the circumstances were a bit different. Bliss bumped into a reporter through a curtain dividing interview zones late in the day. Thinking he might have run into a beautiful woman, Bliss joked aloud that he might continue to run into the shadowy figure behind the curtain.

Then he tugged the curtain aside, peered around and locked eyes with male reporters who wouldn't fit anyone's supermodel dreams.

"Wow, I won't be doing that anymore," Bliss said. "That's like 3 a.m. at the bar and the lights go on."

That, as aptly as anything, sums up a day in which NASCAR drivers and reporters do their best to have fun but under the cold glare of lights, something gets lost.

As Petty said, they're excited for 2005 -- the part on the racetrack, not off it.

Justin Hagey is motorsports editor for ESPN.com.