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Track: 5th straight sellout for season-opening Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The Daytona 500 is a sellout for the fifth consecutive year.

Daytona International Speedway announced Thursday that all reserved grandstand seats have been purchased for the 62nd running of “The Great American Race.”

Track president Chip Wile says “we have the most loyal and passionate fans in sports and we are forever grateful for their support.”

Some specialty tickets remain, including access to premium hospitality areas, the infield and the pre-race concert featuring country/pop star Darius Rucker.

President Donald Trump will serve as grand marshal and give the command for drivers to start their engines. He’s the first sitting president since George W. Bush in 2004 to attend the Daytona 500.

Other pre-race celebrities: Retired NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. will serve as honorary starter and wave the green flag. WWE star Sheamus will serve as honorary pace car driver and lead the field to the green flag. Nalani Quintello, acclaimed vocalist with the United States Air Force Band, will sing the national anthem.

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PRESIDENT TRUMP TO GIVE COMMAND TO START ENGINES AT DAYTONA

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — President Donald Trump will give the command for drivers to start their engines before the Daytona 500.

Daytona International Speedway officials named Trump the grand marshal for NASCAR’s season opener, meaning he will deliver the most famous four words in auto racing. “Gentleman, start your engines,” has been a staple of races around the country and world for decades.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Thursday the president plans to attend the race. Track president Chip Wile confirmed the news in a release.

“Daytona International Speedway has been privileged to have hosted several sitting presidents of the United States over our history,” Wile said. “We’re honored that the president of the United States has chosen to experience the pageantry and excitement of ‘The Great American Race.’”

Trump is the third sitting president to attend a race at Daytona, but only the second to attend the Daytona 500. George W. Bush attended in 2004. Trump is the first to be given an honorary role in pre-race ceremonies.

Trump is scheduled to spend part of the Presidents Day weekend at his private club in Palm Beach, Florida.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a flight restriction for Sunday and the U.S. Secret Service, which is responsible for presidential security, also tweeted to fans that drones are prohibited within 30 miles of the race in Daytona Beach — a restriction put in place for presidential visits.

Trump has hosted previous NASCAR champions at the White House and last October awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to motorsports titan Roger Penske. Last year, Trump also praised retired driver Mario Andretti, the Daytona 500 winner in 1967, reminiscing about a ride Andretti gave him in a race car for his reality show “The Apprentice.”

“I said, ‘Mario, get me out of here. I want to get out of this car,’” Trump recalled. “We went so fast. We literally — we covered four blocks in like a second.”

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NASCAR’S GUESSING GAME: TRYING TO PREDICT THE DAYTONA 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Survival is the most important skill in the Daytona 500.

NASCAR’s season opener is a three-hour, white-knuckle thrill ride in cramped quarters at 200 mph that’s as much about finding holes and help than having speed and handling.

The fastest car rarely wins and has as good a shot at ending up in the junkyard as victory lane.

It’s why little-known Michael McDowell has nearly as many top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway as stars Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson since the famed track was repaved in 2010.

McDowell is far from the only fluke. A look into recent top-10s at Daytona highlights the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing and gives hope to every driver in the 40-car field.

“To finish first, you must finish, right?” veteran driver Clint Bowyer said. “You’ve got to get there. Literally the hardest thing to do is get to the end of that race with all four of your fenders on.”

Thirty years after Derrike Cope notched arguably the most improbable win in Daytona 500 history, the track has reached new heights — more of a “who’s that” scenario than a who’s who of auto racing running up front at the end.

“Think about the way it was when I first started, what you had to overcome handling, slipping and sliding around and a gutsy move,” said the 40-year-old Bowyer, who is 0 for 14 in “The Great American Race” and winless in 28 Cup Series starts at Daytona.

“Now it’s survival. You’ve got to survive,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out how to find that hole that’s a safe hole that you can survive and make it to the end.”

McDowell, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, AJ Allmendinger, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones are among those with more top-10s at Daytona than Kyle Larson, who is considered one of NASCAR’s most complete and capable drivers.

Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have combined for more top-10s at the famed track than Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Odd, right? Some of the races look downright off, even for Daytona.

Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain slipped into the top 10 in last year’s 500 following two late crashes that knocked out nearly half the field.

Austin Dillon notched his second career Cup Series victory in the 2018 opener thanks partly to a 12-car pileup in overtime. Dillon led just one lap, the last one.

The July race at Daytona has been even more chaotic.

Rookie Justin Haley won last year’s rain-shortened debacle that also included Corey LaJoie, DiBenedetto and Matt Tifft in the top 10. It was the second straight year the winner only led the final lap.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., McDowell, David Ragan, Brendan Gaughan and Buescher found themselves up front at the end in 2017.

“Mainly it’s all about making good decisions on the racetrack and being a smart guy on the track people want to work with,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s really doing all the things in your control to the best of your ability and then, on top of that, hoping all the things out of your control work your way because you’ve got to have some luck.”

The 2010 repave changed everything at Daytona.

The worn-out, slippery and bumpy racing surface, which prompted tire changes at nearly every pit stop, was gone. Instead, new asphalt around the 2 ½-mile, high-banked track created the tightest pack racing ever seen at Daytona. Tandem racing became the trend in 2011, when Trevor Bayne’s second career Cup start ended with a trip to victory lane.

Several rules changes loosened up the tag-team racing, but two cars locking bumpers and pushing and bumping remains the fastest way around the track. And teamwork has become paramount, something that gets talked about before, during and after the races.

“It’s wild,” Buescher said. “There are a lot of things that are in your control. There’s a lot of skill-set to it and a lot of good decisions need to be made. But there is a luck factor as well.”

Hamlin has been one of the most fortunate in recent years. The defending race winner is one of three drivers — along with McDowell and Joey Logano — to notch consecutive top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500. Hamlin has finished in the 500’s top 10 five times in the last six years.

“I talk about trying to be in the right position. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to get wrecked on the first lap,” Hamlin said. “I think the law of averages would tell you I’m due to get crashed out about the next six or seven Daytona 500s because the last six or eight I haven’t.

“I’ve been a factor to be at the end. You just never know. I’ll continue to try to do the same thing. Who knows what will happen?”

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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