New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski gives a thumbs up during a news conference before the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Latest on the Daytona 500 (all times local):
1: 15 p.m.
The Gronk Spike has touched down at Daytona.
Rob Gronkowski, known as much for his off-field frivolity as his on-field talent for the New England Patriots, was the star of the show before the Daytona 500.
He had Monster Energy drinks and Monster girls all around him, a winning party combo for Gronk.
“I’m a fan of both of ’em,” Gronkowski said. “I make the girls make my own drink so I get the benefit of both.”
Gronkowski mingled with drivers in the garage, though he skipped riding the Monster Energy motorcycle “Ball of Death” in the fan zone.
“I got my one boy, Bobby Goons. He does all the stunt double (work) for me I’m not allowed to do,” he said. “He rode a bull about a couple of weeks ago in New York.”
Gronkowski attended his first Daytona 500 as a guest of Monster Energy, the new title sponsor in NASCAR’s Cup series. Gronkowski has an endorsement deal with Monster and wore a black T-shirt sporting a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series logo.
Daytona seemed the perfect fit for Gronk.
“I’m just having a blast,” he said. “I never really got to tailgate. I never really got to run-around (on Sundays). It’s cool to run-around and meet people, enjoy the atmosphere, see what really goes down on this side of the stadium.”
Gronkowski received the loudest ovation among all actors, athletes and other dignitaries introduced at the pre-race drivers meeting. Gronkowski had back surgery in December and missed New England’s Super Bowl win over Atlanta.
“It’s definitely tough, I ain’t gonna lie,” Gronkowski said. “It makes me want to go harder. Makes me want to rehab, makes me want to get back out on the field and be out with the boys.”
— Dan Gelston
NASCAR chairman Brian France issued a stern warning to drivers about blocking during the pre-race meeting for the Daytona 500.
France rarely wades into competition issues, but used his time at the microphone to warn the field that NASCAR will not interject if a driver tries to block another and it goes wrong.
“Blocking is part of racing,” France told drivers. “It causes big crashes. When you block somebody, you better hope there is a good Samaritan behind you.”
In other words, NASCAR won’t penalize a driver who wrecks someone trying to block.
Blocking caused multiple accidents in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series season openers at Daytona earlier this week.
— Jenna Fryer
Daytona 500 crasher!
Owen Wilson might need more time to rehearse his lines as the race’s grand marshal. Wilson’s quip that he should have an easy time instructing drivers to start their engines for the Daytona 500 backfired when he messed up one of the key words.
“Well, yeah, um, it shouldn’t be too tricky. I think it’s, ‘Racers, start your engines?’” Wilson said.
Told it was, “drivers,” Wilson cracked, “Oh, see, I already made a mistake.”
Rule #76: No excuses. Give the command like a champion! Luckily for him, he gets a second take.
Wilson will voice Lightning McQueen in the upcoming movie “Cars 3.” Wilson said his former “Cars” co-star Paul Newman would have been the actor that would have been the best NASCAR driver. Newman, who died in 2008, was a passionate race fan, driver and team owner.
“I just saw a documentary on his racing and he seemed to have almost more of a passion for that than the stuff he was doing in the movies,” Wilson said.
Wilson received some Daytona tips from “Wedding Crashers” co-star Vince Vaughn, who served as grand marshal two years ago.
“His big tip was not to watch his YouTube clip of him doing it because why see perfection?” Wilson said.
With “Zoolander 2” out of the running for an Oscar, Wilson picked “La La Land” as the favorite to win some awards in tonight’s ceremony.
“That ‘La La Land’ I thought was pretty good,” he said. “I went in seeing that, I was like, ‘I don’t know how much I’ll like a musical.’ But I felt that one was good pretty. And then, umm, yeah.”
— Dan Gelston
A star-studded lineup of actors, musicians and celebrities is usually on hand for the Daytona 500. A handful of them have definitive roles for the season opener.
There are always more just taking in NASCAR biggest event.
The list this year includes actor Keanu Reeves, former NFL coach Rex Ryan, Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, New York Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf, four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, comedian Larry The Cable Guy, home improvement celeb Ty Pennington and celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
Others include major league catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Orlando Magic players Nikola Vucevic and Jeff Green, actor/singer Jamie Lynn Spears, comedian Nate Bargatze, comedian Bill Burr, UFC fighter Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, rapper Waka Flocka Flame, hip hop disc jockey DJ Whoo Kid and Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, a gymnast who is the most recent winner of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Actor Owen Wilson, the grand marshal for the race, drew the biggest crowds.
Even other celebrities took notice.
“What was it like having Owen Wilson up here?” said Dave Haywood, one-third of the trio Lady Antebellum. “I was kind of geeking out on that.”
— Mark Long
NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson seems like the perfect person to wave the green flag to start the Daytona 500.
“Jimmie Johnson told me, ‘Just don’t drop it,’” Tomlinson said. “I wasn’t a guy that fumbled a lot, so I’m not worried about dropping it today.”
The flag should be in sure hands: Tomlinson fumbled just 30 times in nearly 4,000 touches over his 11-year NFL career.
Tomlinson is the honorary starter, and former “American Idol” contestant Jordin Sparks will sing the national anthem.
Sparks and Tomlinson, who star in the film “God Bless The Broken Road,” both called attending the race a bucket list item.
Sparks says she plans to shave almost 20 seconds of her anthem performance in the 2008 Super Bowl. She earned rave reviews for her rendition.
“Usually in a football stadium or a different stadium, half the crowd is behind me,” she said. “Now, I can see as far as my eye can see. Just a little more pressure.”
Her performance will be followed by a flyover from the famed U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
Mario Andretti is at Daytona as an honorary race official, 50 years after his victory in “The Great American Race.”
Andretti won the 1967 Daytona 500 and is one of only four drivers to win both the 500 and the prestigious Rolex 24 sports car race. He joins AJ Foyt, Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon in that club.
Andretti is a fixture in IndyCar, and his visits to NASCAR are rare. But he understands this race is the equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 and a Daytona 500 victory carries the same weight on a drivers’ resume.
“There are many drivers who are deserving to win, and never win the big ones,” Andretti said. “I guarantee during the driver meeting, there is more tension than any other race. This is the crown jewel of NASCAR. The winner of today’s race will have a big, big feather on his or her hat.”
Daytona International Speedway officials presented Andretti with a painting of his two winning cars at Daytona.
— Jenna Fryer
Denny Hamlin is trying to join an exclusive club of repeat Daytona 500 champions.
Hamlin would become only the fourth driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s, and the first in 22 years. Richard Petty, a seven-time Daytona 500 champ, went back-to-back in 1973 and 1974. Cale Yarborough did the same in 1983 and 1984. Sterling Marlin was the last driver — in 1994 and 1995 — to have his name etched on the Harley J. Earl Trophy two straight years.
Hamlin defeated Martin Truex Jr. by 0.010 seconds last year, the closest finish in race history.
Hamlin is in solid shape in the No. 11 Toyota to be a contender to repeat. He won a 150-mile qualifying race last week and starts fourth.
— Dan Gelston
The Daytona 500 will have perfect weather.
The high is expected to be 67 degrees in Daytona Beach, with clear skies, plenty of sunshine and zero chance of rain.
NASCAR’s season opener was delayed by rain twice in the last five years, getting pushed into prime time in 2014 and postponed to Monday in 2012.
The exhibition Clash at Daytona last week was postponed a day because of heavy rain.
— Mark Long
It’s Daytona Day!
The 59th running of the Daytona 500 begins Sunday afternoon, with Chase Elliott on the pole for the second consecutive year. Although Elliott had the fastest car in qualifying, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is getting most of the attention. Earnhardt is returning from his fifth documented concussion, the latest costing him half of last season.
Earnhardt will start alongside Elliott on the front row of “The Great American Race.”
Elliott won one of two qualifying races Thursday. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, the defending Daytona 500 winner, won the other.
Others to watch in the season opener — NASCAR’s most prestigious race — include Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The Team Penske teammates won three of four restrictor-plate races last season.
— Mark Long
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