As he sits in the stands overlooking Auto Club Speedway this weekend, longtime NASCAR fan Danny Mell knows it could be the last time he hears firsthand the roaring engines, smells the burning rubber and sees the checkered flag drop.
Mell, a 57-year-old Fresno man who has terminal lung cancer, is as excited as a child on the night before Christmas about his trip to Fontana.
"I haven't been to a race in so long, it's, ' Yeah!' " Mell said Thursday with a fist pump and a huge smile.
Dream Foundation, a nationwide wish-granting organization for adults with life-threatening illnesses, is making Mell's trip possible. Mell said he is extremely grateful to the foundation and others for fulfilling his dream.
"They just don't know how lucky they've made me feel," he said.
At the Carl's Jr. restaurant near Shaw and Marks avenues in northwest Fresno on Thursday afternoon, Mell received two tickets to Sunday's Auto Club 400 Sprint Cup race, a $500 check for expenses and a cake frosted like a U.S. flag with a toy race car on it. The restaurant also fed Mell and about 10 relatives.
Carl's Jr. partners with the Dream Foundation to fund wishes like Mell's, said Mike Redmond, spokesman for Carl's Jr. in Fresno.
Two pit passes and a tour of the raceway garages are part of the dream package.
"He'll get the VIP treatment," Redmond said.
Mell hopes to meet some NASCAR drivers, including his favorite, Carl Edwards, "No. 99, the backflip kid." Edwards is known for doing a backflip off his race car to celebrate a win.
Mell has been a NASCAR fan since the late '80s but hasn't been to a race in more than a decade.
His interest in cars goes beyond his love for racing. The Navy veteran was an auto mechanic for much of his career.
Mell was diagnosed with lung cancer in summer 2010. After undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Mell learned recently from his doctor that his cancer is terminal.
"He looked at me and said, 'Grab your jacket and your hat, and you better do what you want to do now,' " Mell said.
Mell's wife, Vicki, a breast cancer survivor, applied for a Dream Foundation wish for her husband, with the NASCAR trip as first choice. Second choice? Attending a concert of his favorite county singer, Reba McEntire.
Mell's face lit up when he learned his Dream Foundation wish had been granted, relatives said. He then said, "Well, Reba can go to NASCAR with me."
Vicki Mell, 51, who will accompany her husband this weekend, said he deserves the trip: He was "a trouper" through her cancer treatments. "The whole time he was there and encouraging me," she said.
Losing her hair was traumatic, but he assured her that it didn't matter and he loved her, she said.
"He's an awesome guy," she said. "He's my world."
The couple have five children and 11 grandchildren, the latter of whom will be with Mell in more than just spirit this weekend.
His family had a T-shirt made for him that says "Grandpa's Pit Crew" above two checkered flags. Under the flags are each of his grandchildren's names next to 11 race cars. He plans to wear the T-shirt this weekend.
Vicki Mell said she is looking forward to his reaction when they get to the raceway.
"The most important part will be seeing the look on his face, to see him happy," she said.
Mell's doctor has not given him a prognosis on how much time he has left to live, and he continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments.
"When it comes, it comes," he said. "Not much we can do about it. We'll keep fighting it the best we can."
He still takes occasional walks and recently took a group of family and friends on a fishing and camping trip. And though he tires easily and experiences shortness of breath, he remains upbeat.
But knowing that his own race is nearly run, Mell has accepted his fate.
"I've lived a full life," he said. "I've got no complaints."