Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, known as much for his off-field frivolity as his on-field talent, was the star of the show before the Daytona 500.
Gronkowski received the loudest ovation among all actors, athletes, and dignitaries introduced at the prerace 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.’’
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,’’ said Gronkowski, who shared the spotlight in Victory Lane with Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch afterward. ‘‘I make the girls make my own drink so I get the benefit of both.’’
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.’’.
France warns drivers
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.
Stars were aligned
Gronkowski and actor Owen Wilson, who gave the starting command as the grand marshal, were part of a star-studded lineup of actors, musicians, and celebrities who usually turn out for the Daytona 500. But a handful of them had definitive roles for the season opener.
This year, the list included: actor Keanu Reeves, former NFL coach Rex Ryan, Hall of Fame outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., 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 former Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, Orlando Magic players Nikola Vucevic and Jeff Green, formerly of the Celtics, 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.’’
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.’’
NFL Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson was enlisted to wave the green flag for the start of the race.
‘‘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 was in sure hands: Tomlinson fumbled just 30 times in nearly 4,000 touches over his 11-year NFL career.
Mario Andretti was at Daytona as an honorary race official, 50 years after his victory in the 1967 Daytona 500. He is one of only four drivers to win both the 500 and the prestigious Rolex 24 sports car race, joined by A.J. Foyt, Jamie McMurray, and Jeff Gordon in that club.
A fixture in IndyCar, Andretti’s visits to NASCAR races are rare. But he understands this race is the equivalent of the Indianapolis 500 and a Daytona 500 victory carried the same weight on a drivers’ resume.
‘‘There are many drivers who are deserving to win, and never win the big ones,’’ Andretti said. ‘‘This is the crown jewel of NASCAR. The winner of today’s race will have a big, big feather on his or her hat.’’