Bring On The Green Flag

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A dream will come true Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway. All the hard work and dedication from both the winning driver and his team will be rewarded with the most glorious ride in NASCAR Winston Cup Series competition.

At the end of the day, after 500 miles of competition, there will be only one who gets to drive down pit road before making a sharp left-hand turn into victory lane following the Winston Cup season-opening Daytona 500.

Will it be a former 500 winner such as Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Bill Elliott or Sterling Marlin? Or could the race produce a first-time winner in the Daytona 500… Tony Stewart, Mike Skinner, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin or Ricky Rudd.

It will also be a day when Elliott leads a Dodge contingency back into Winston Cup competition after more than a dozen years away from the circuit. Elliott won the pole for Sunday’s event, and fellow Dodge driver Stacy Compton will start alongside him on the front row.

“I feel good about Sunday,” Elliott said. “I've got a good car and a good team, and we'll see what happens. Daytona has been good to me through the years, and win, lose or draw on Sunday, if we can come out of here with a good finish it'll set the tempo for the rest of the season. That's what we need to strive for at this point. Everybody will need to use their heads Sunday.

“The new aero package NASCAR has implemented is quite a bit different. We'll have our work cut out for us, but we've got a good car and it'll run competitively all afternoon.”

NASCAR’s aerodynamic rules for this year’s 500 have got the field closer than ever, with at least 15 drivers sharing a legitimate chance of going to victory lane.

“Earnhardt is going to be pretty tough and Sterling is going to be tough… both those guys have a good shot at winning it,” said Andy Graves, team manager with Ganassi Racing and drivers Jason Leffler and Marlin. “Tony Stewart has also got a hell of a car. Tony had a good race by winning the Shootout, so we know he's going to be tough.”

Stewart said one of the biggest highlights of his racing career came last Sunday when he held off Earnhardt to win the Budweiser Shootout.

“It was a big boost,” Stewart said. “I felt like the restrictor-plate races were the ones where I needed the most work. Being able to go out there and win a race doesn't show you have everything you need to know, but it does show you at least know enough to get the job done for that day. Every time we go to a restrictor-plate track, I learn something new. Beating Earnhardt is the one thing that all drivers want to do. Not only do we want to win, we want the respect of the people we race. I felt like I ran a safe race to where I wasn't putting anyone in danger. I ran a competitive race, which is what you're always hoping for.

“When you can beat Dale at his own game, then that gives you the respect that you're looking for.”

As long as his famous black No. 3 Chevrolet is on the track, nobody can count out ‘The Intimidator’ for a second Daytona 500 win.

“We're ready for Sunday,” Earnhardt said. “These guys have worked too hard not to be in contention at the end. The car handled good during Thursday's race, but it'll be a little different kind of race on Sunday. Our team's prepared and we plan on starting the season off strong and continuing that all year.”

Earnhardt’s crew chief, Kevin Hamlin, is looking at the big picture as Earnhardt heads after a record-breaking eighth Winston Cup title in 2001.

“You've heard it said that you have to lose a championship before you can win one,” said Hamlin, whose team finished second in points last year. “I now have a better understanding of what they're talking about. We're ready to win one now. We didn't lose anyone over the winter and have kept this unit together for over a year. It will be fun to watch this year as they get better and better every week.”

There’s also the possibility a rookie could surprise everyone by winning the Daytona 500 in his first attempt. One of those drivers is Andy Houston, who will start ninth as he enters his first full season in Winston Cup competition with team owner Cal Wells.

“I'm a little surprised with where we’re going to start, but I'm not surprised with this team,” Houston said. “We've got great people and Cal has made sure there has been no stone left unturned through winter testing. So, in that aspect, I feel like we’re going to be in pretty good shape. I was a little surprised I was able to come down here and run the way I did in the qualifying race and, hopefully, we can run that way in the 500. One of the big reasons I came to drive for Cal in the first place was the resources and people he had working for him.”

One of the biggest stories heading into today’s race is how physical racing has become with the new aerodynamic rules in place at Daytona. According to most drivers, a slip by one driver could spell disaster for the rest of the field.

“NASCAR definitely got what they wanted because they’ve had a lot closer racing than they’ve ever had at Daytona,” Rudd said.

And that’s a great thing… at least until “The Big Wreck.”

“The wreck IS going to happen,” Joe Nemechek said. “There’s been some crazy things happen out here in practice, but that’s why the fans are here. You just never know what’s going to happen. It’s all you can do to drive the car. Once they get three-wide it gets pretty physical. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it. It should be interesting.”

Defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte agrees with that assessment.

“With the way the rules are, it’s like short-track racing on a superspeedway,” Labonte said. “It’s the same kind of racing. If you get out front you’re a sitting duck, and if you want to block you’re going to either get passed or run over. You really just have to be able to pick and choose your moves just right and try not to block people too bad. But if it comes down to it, of course everybody is going to block as much as they can.

“The most important feature we have on the cars right now is the rear-view mirror.”

Stewart says the new rules just have things too bunched up.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen at Daytona a little easier than it will at Talladega,” Stewart said. “Every bumper on my car was broken at the end on Thursday’s race. In general, restrictor-plate racing is a recipe for a big wreck because we’re all running so close to each other. If something happens you can’t get away from it, so the recipe for disaster is there.”

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