DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Daytona 500 media day included lots of talk — about puppy love, wedding rings and a growing mullet — and conversations about four-time champion Jeff Gordon and possibly his final ride in NASCAR’S most prestigious race.
NASCAR’s biggest stars took center stage for the annual event held inside Daytona International Speedway on Thursday.
Danica Patrick defended the GoDaddy puppy commercial that was pulled from the Super Bowl after criticism from animal-rights groups, saying “people have an opinion about everything, especially when you get into that world of animal rights or tree rights or whatever rights.” Defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick welcomed the challenge of trying to repeat.
Embattled driver Kurt Busch insisted he would be in the car all season despite a lingering court case involving a former girlfriend. And 2012 champion Brad Keselowski said he was one of the series’ three best drivers after a fiery 2014 season that included fisticuffs and bruised feelings.
Those were just some of the highlights. Here are the others:
EARNHARDT’S PHOBIA: NASCAR’s biggest star has a little phobia. Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed that he wants nothing to do with jewelry. Necklaces, rings, bracelets, no way.
“It’s creepy to me,” said the two-time and defending Daytona 500 champion. “I can be in the same room with it. It doesn’t bother me on other people.”
Earnhardt and his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann, already have talked about what might happen down the road if they get married. Earnhardt has no plans to give in, saying he won’t wear a ring but will get her one if she wants.
“I’m not going to be held accountable and she can do whatever she wants,” he said. “I figure if we ever get to that step in life that I owe her that much, so I’ll have to put up with that. But I’m free of all my obligations in that regard.”
BOWYER BOMBS: Clint Bowyer doesn’t believe in omens, but he looks back at last year’s Daytona 500 as an indication he was in for a disappointing season.
Bowyer sat through a lengthy rain delay, only to suffer an engine failure when the race resumed.
He finished 42nd and left Daytona ranked 39th in the standings. Bowyer went on to his second consecutive winless season and failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“I knew last year — I’m weird about thinking — but when we blew up at the start of the year at the Daytona 500, I knew something just didn’t feel right because we’ve always been able to come down here and run pretty good and get the year started off right and leave here with momentum and excitement and confidence,” Bowyer said. “We were all dejected leaving the first race, so that was not very good.”
Bowyer is hopeful that behind-the-scenes changes made at Michael Waltrip Racing will lead to a far more successful season — beginning this weekend when he races in Saturday night’s exhibition Sprint Unlimited.
“I feel like now it’s a group effort,” he said. “When you’re in the meetings, there’s a lot of people and a lot of voices being heard and you didn’t necessarily hear that last year.”
JOHNSON’S PURSUIT: Jimmie Johnson was only mediocre by the standards he set for his team during his six championship seasons.
So it was a disappointment when he was eliminated from title contention in the second round of last year’s Chase. Johnson believes his Hendrick Motorsports team learned from the experience and will be far better this season.
“When you’re struggling, you almost have a shotgun approach, and you’re trying to hit a wide pattern and see what brings speed,” Johnson said. “When you unload off the truck and you’re fast, you get much more into like a rifle scenario and you’re very precise with the changes you make, and there’s a lot of speed in the details.
“Sometimes you can recover if you unload slow and you get in the game and can be close and have a shot at winning, but in most cases you’re an adjustment or two behind all weekend, and you just never get there, and then that’s the hard part.”
He goes into this year again trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for seven championships, the NASCAR record.
MULLET MANIA: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is sticking with his mullet — no matter what girlfriend Danica Patrick thinks.
Stenhouse said he’s committed to the hairdo despite pleas from Patrick to cut the curled-up locks that hang over the collar of his fire suit.
“Mom loves it,” Stenhouse said. “It’s always nice to keep mom happy.”
What about Patrick?
“Ehhhh, maybe not so much,” Stenhouse added. “We’ll see. Right now, it’s the most committed I’ve been to it since I was younger, which I don’t guess was my decision. I think that was my mom’s decision when I was younger.”
Stenhouse sported a mullet — the ol’ business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back look — when he first met Patrick. But the former IndyCar driver persuaded him to cut it. He started growing it back in the middle of last season, and now it’s close to being the real deal, much like Jeff Gordon had in the early 1990s.
“Jeff Gordon’s last year, so maybe I’ll just keep it for him,” Stenhouse said.
AP Sports Writers Jenna Fryer and Dan Gelston contributed to this report.
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