Ten-year old Layla Popoff was ready for the green flag. Lined up alongside NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran Casey Mears for a race through Legoland’s intricate Miniland creations on Monday afternoon, Popoff’s brick car jumped off the starting line. She led flag-to-flag and claimed an intricately constructed Lego trophy.
Mears’ car “somehow” ended up in a pile of (Lego) bricks near the finish line, but he was the first to congratulate his competitor Popoff, who is battling multiple serious medical issues and was granted the chance to race Mears thanks in part to Legoland and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“So many times people are going through rough times, but the kids they seem to handle it so well,” said Mears, emphasizing the best part of his day was spending time with Popoff. “It always surprises me when you meet a young kid like this and they are so positive. She’s got a lot of drive, you can tell. She’s very competitive. She was telling me she was going to win right out of the gate and she did.”
For her part, Popoff was genuinely excited to meet Mears. They spoke, laughed and kidded each other about the competition. After their race, Mears took his new friend inside the Lego display nearby — a huge new Lego re-creation of Daytona International Speedway recently updated to reflect the Daytona Rising improvements and enhancements fans will once again see at the July 2 Coke Zero 400 night race there (7:45 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.)
In fact, Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile was also at hand at Legoland and impressed with the new model of the track. He reports that the facility is ready for its second 2016 NASCAR date.
“How impressive and to see what they’ve done here (at Legoland) is such a true representation of Daytona International Speedway,” Wile said. “It took 2,100 man hours to build and they spoke with our team to make sure they had the right photos to work off of. They really wanted it to be an accurate representation. I would argue they did a good job.”
As for the upcoming Daytona races, “We’re putting the finishing touches on it,” Wile said.
“The great thing about our facility is it is used so much. We’ve been very busy. But we did a walk-through over the weekend and the place looks great. We’re real excited to have our race fans back for the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola. The expectation is it’s one of the biggest events of the year. Overall we’re ready and we can’t wait for people to get here.”
Mears added one more touch to the Legoland Daytona on Monday. With a large audience watching, Mears placed a miniature version of his No. 13 GEICO car in Daytona’s Victory Lane at the Lego display.
Daytona International Speedway is one of Mears’ best tracks. He finished runner-up in the 2006 Daytona 500 (only weeks after winning that Rolex 24). And he has eight top-11 finishes at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, including five consecutive before February’s Daytona 500 when he placed 32nd.
“Daytona has been a real good track for us, and the road courses as well,” Mears said, noting this week’s stop at the Sonoma road course in his home state of California.
“It’s been a rough year for us in general as far as results go, but I feel like our team is as prepared as it ever has been. It’s probably the best season we’ve had in terms of having fast race cars, knowing and understanding what we need to do to be fast, but we’re just not getting results for whatever reason. It’s just been a lot of random things.
“I’m looking forward to the second half of the season and showing people what we can do. I think Daytona and Sonoma are good places to show that.”
Mears has a pair of top-10 finishes at the Northern California course in Sonoma, a best of fifth in 2008. His best-ever road course showing is a fourth place at Watkins Glen in 2004.
This week, however, runner-up to Popoff was as good as it gets. She said her family is planning to make its first-ever NASCAR race at Daytona in two weeks.
“I’m a fan and I like racing,” Popoff said, her face breaking into a huge grin. “And usually, I always cheer for Casey Mears.”
Which clearly shows Mears has won already.