- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - Five things to know about what’s going on at Daytona International Speedway before Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500:


CHRIS EVANS: Daytona called on Captain America to kick off “The Great American Race.” Evans served as grand marshal and gave the command for drivers to start their engines before the Daytona 500. Evans stars in “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” scheduled for release April 4. He joined a list of previous Daytona 500 grand marshals that included Ben Affleck, Kate Upton, Matthew McConaughey and James Franco. He posed for pictures beforehand with the United States Air Force Thunderbirds. Evans was thrilled to get tabbed for the signature start. “It is an honor,” he said. “It’s a little intimidating at this point.” Evans attended one previous NASCAR race and said he was wowed by how pit crews operate. “It’s all things that are relatively foreign to me,” he said. “To see how much goes into it, there’s just an enormous amount of respect.” Evans, though, is no gearhead. “I don’t even drive that fast,” he said. “It’s not really my speed.”


GARY SINISE: Actor Gary Sinise’s entourage at Daytona included a special guest. Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan Taylor in the 1994 blockbuster “Forrest Gump,” brought injured Marine Sgt. Mike Nicholson with him to the famed track. Nicholson lost both legs and an arm in a bombing in Afghanistan. The Gary Sinise Foundation, which raises money to help the nation’s veterans, first responders and their families, recently finished a smart-technology home for Nicholson. “I’ve been able to use my success in the movie business to shine a light on some of the things our military are going through,” Sinise said. He was the honorary starter and waved the green flag to start the race. He waited nearly two years to attend his first NASCAR race. He was supposed to serve as grand marshal at Martinsville Speedway in March 2012, but was in car accident just days before the race and ended up in the hospital. “This is my first race and I get to do it in style by waving the green flag,” he said. “I’ve very much been looking forward to it.”


ALOE BLACC: Aloe Blacc promised and then delivered a more traditional national anthem Sunday, a day after “America’s most patriotic rock band” stole the headlines at Daytona. Madison Rising’s rendition of the national anthem had a few drivers chuckling and some fans shaking their heads before the Nationwide Series season opener. Their head-scratching version caused driver Brad Keselowski to say, “I wish they would just sing the damn song.” Blacc heard about the buzz the performance created and said fans “don’t need to worry about that with me. I come from a military family,” he said. “My dad is a retired major in the Marine Corps. When it comes to the anthem, you honor the country and you sing it so everybody can sing it with you. You want to make sure everyone can sing along.” Blacc performed during the NBA’s All-Star game weekend. His profile was boosted when his song, “The Man,” was played in commercials during the NFL playoffs. Blacc had no idea it would turn into a postseason anthem. “It was just a song I put together for my album,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be a lead single or anything. I got a huge opportunity by Beats by (Dr.) Dre to be in the commercial. That gave it legs we never really expected.”


LUKE BRYAN: Of all the stars attending the Daytona 500, pop-country singer Luke Bryan clearly had the most NASCAR ties. Bryan grew up in southwest Georgia watching NASCAR and cheering for Cale Yarborough. “We grew up loving racing and I’ve been a part of so many races through the years but this is my first Daytona 500.” Bryan performed the pre-race concert in the Daytona infield, singing four songs that included hits “That’s My Kind Of Night” and “Crash My Party.”


OLYMPIC STARS: Snowboard halfpipe gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington and U.S. Paralympic runner Blake Leeper were honorary race officials. Leeper’s role called for him to hand the green starting flag to Sinise. “I’m going to jog up the ramp on my blades and walk up to Gary. So we’re going to have a guy with no legs handing a flag to a guy who played a guy with no legs. The irony of that is pretty awesome.” Leeper was born with both legs missing below the knee and has worn prosthetics since he was 9 months old. He’s been running for just over three years and is training for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio in an attempt to become the first double amputee American to compete for the U.S. “I just want to thank (Daytona), the fact they had me, a person with a disability, as an honorary race official is really huge,” Leeper said. “I feel like I am the face of the 54 million disabled Americans and hopefully I’ll change their lives today by them seeing me out there today, showing anything is possible.”

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