Speedweeks Reading

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The shortest offseason in professional sports is officially over this weekend as the annual Speedweeks festivities begin in Daytona. It’s amazing that even after one of the most grueling and emotionally taxing years in racing history how the anticipation of the new season can be so high.

No other sport starts the season with its biggest event like NASCAR does with the Daytona 500. But Daytona is so much more than just the 500, which is the crescendo to a week-long concert of speed. In all there will be ten events conducted at the “World Center of Racing” during Speedweeks 2002 and here’s what to watch for during the next ten days:

DAYTONA 500 QUALIFYING

Don’t use any of the January testing speeds as a benchmark when trying to figure out who has the best chance to win the pole for the Daytona 500. Between teams trying to shake out the bugs, draft speeds differing dramatically from solo car laps and manufacturers sandbagging in an effort to generate an aerodynamic rules advantage, the test sessions weren’t a true indication of what qualifying will be.

There’s no reason to think the Dodge boys won’t be dominant during time trials, just as they were at Daytona and Talladega last season. While the new aero package will certainly affect the draft and racing, qualifying should pretty much be unchanged. Look for the man who carried the Dodge return in 2001, Sterling Marlin, to put the Coors Light Intrepid on the pole Saturday afternoon.


DAYTONA USA 150

NASCAR’s subcompact Goody’s Dash Series makes its traditional Daytona appearance on Saturday immediately following 500 qualifying. It’s still a little scary to watch these mostly short track drivers speed around the high banks of Daytona at speeds in excess of 165 miles per hour. But these six cylinder warriors usually put on a good show when it comes down to the end. Young Justin Hobgood, who will start outside of row one, is a veteran of the Dash Series and has the superspeedway experience necessary to get to Daytona’s victory lane.


ARCA 200

The ARCA RE/MAX Series has been competing at Daytona for nearly forty years and has been a mainstay of the Speedweeks schedule. With more superspeedways now a regular part of the ARCA schedule, drivers have much more experience at tracks like Daytona which will hopefully lead to a safe race. Unfortunately spectacular crashes in a Daytona ARCA race have become relatively common over the years. Third generation driver Jason Jarrett gained a great deal of experience last year when he competed primarily on the entire ARCA series slate and looks poised to have a breakout year in 2002. While veteran driver and defending series champion Frank Kimmel is always a threat in any ARCA race, look for Double J to walk away with Sunday’s win.

BUD SHOOTOUT

A record field of 22 drivers are set to take the green flag in Sunday’s annual pole-winners all-star race. The 70-lap dash, which includes a mandatory pit stop, will be the first real look at what the racing will be like under the new aerodynamic rules package. Last year’s restrictor plate dominance by the DEI team will most likely be replicated this season, which means watch for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and outside front row starter Kenny Wallace to be strong in the shootout. (Defending Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip won’t be in the field after failing to win a pole in 2001.) But although saddled with a shotgun starting position, the 22nd and final spot, Jeff Gordon is the pick.

GATORADE TWIN 125s

Dale Earnhardt’s Daytona dominance was never more obvious than his mastery in the Thursday’s twin qualifying races, which set the field for the 500. It will be an emotional time in Daytona as Earnhardt’s memory is honored the entire week, but his absence in the twins may be the most evident. But the Earnhardt name will continue to be a force in the midweek preliminaries this season as Dale Jr. captures one half of the doubleheader with Bill Elliott scoring another popular win in the other.


CRAFTSMAN TRUCK 250

The Craftsman Truck Series legacy at Daytona will always be the horrifying accident involving Geoff Bodine in the circuit’s inaugural race at the track in 2000. But in reality, aside from that frightening crash, the trucks have put on some of the most entertaining races of Speedweeks in recent years and this year’s version should be no exception. In this transitional year for the series, there are no clear cut favorites for the championship. But the two car Ultra Motorsports team of veteran Ted Musgrave and Jason Leffler, who takes over the ASE Dodge vacated by Scott Riggs, look to be the cream of the crop. Give the Daytona truck win to the experienced Musgrave.

IROC

Without the participation of CART or Formula One drivers, there’s very little international flavor to the International Race of Champions these days. In fact, with Al Unser, Jr.’s addition to this year’s field the champions aspect of the series is also a little watered down. The four race series has basically boiled down to a match race between NASCAR and IRL drivers, with World of Outlaws champ Danny Lasoski thrown into this year’s mix. But with the drafting experience and familiarity with Daytona necessary to win, Winston Cup star Tony Stewart will hoist Friday’s IROC trophy high.


GNC LIVE WELL 300

The Busch Series season opener is always a slam bang affair and with a strong contingent of Cup drivers in the field, Saturday’s race should be exciting. Longtime BGN champ Jeff Green has moved into greener Winston Cup pastures, leaving truck series standout Scott Riggs as his replacement in the Nesquick No. 10. Riggs will be a factor as will 2001 rookie sensation Greg Biffle, but I have a hunch another former truck series star will start his Busch career on a high note when Jack Sprague wheels into victory lane.


DAYTONA 500

Picking a winner for “The Great American Race” this far in advance is a total crapshoot, especially without the benefit of watching how the new rules package effects things in racing trim. But a few heavyweights stand out as favorites even at this early juncture including the DEI triumvirate of Earnhardt, Wallace and Waltrip; Dodge contenders Marlin and Elliott; the always strong Robert Yates Racing duo of Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd; and of course four-time champion Jeff Gordon. But I see a new face putting his name in the record book this year. Well his face isn’t actually new, but his situation has certainly changed for the better in 2002. Yes, none other than “Mr. Excitement” Jimmy Spencer is my pick to win this year’s Daytona 500. The newest addition to the Chip Ganassi Dodge operation, Spencer with some help from teammate Marlin, will have a victory celebration no one will ever forget.

So there you have it. Nine days, ten events. It’s the best way to shake off the winter blues anywhere.

Related Topics:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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