The Earnhardt 500

I'm sure several of my media colleagues have already written leads and headlines in anticipation of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"The Son Also Rises"
"Junior Has Senior Moment"
"The Great American Driver"

If races were run on paper, Earnhardt would already be sipping a cold Budweiser in victory lane. The fact is, no one has dominated a Speedweeks like this since, well Dale Earnhardt, Sr. It seems no matter what race or car Junior is in, he's at the front of the field. And not just leading - dominating.

It didn't matter if it was Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick running behind Eanrhardt in Saturday's Busch race, there wasn't any way anyone was going to get around him. Just as he's done in his Winston Cup ride the last two years at both Daytona and Talladega, Earnhardt pulls away from the field draft or no draft. The horsepower his DEI engine produces looks like he has five miles per hour more than his closest competitor.

We'll surely see the same on Sunday. There's no reason to believe Earnhardt and his blocking partner Michael Waltrip will again be at the front of the field for a majority of the 500 miles. But as we've all seen hundreds of times before, anything can happen over the course of a 500 mile race.

Pit road will be the key on Sunday, with the pressure on crews to perform flawlessly two or three times more than they have in the past. NASCAR's mandate of using smaller fuel cells at restrictor plate tracks to generate additional pit stops, and in theory alleviate the giant packs of cars on the speedway, has put the spotlight squarely on pit road. As we saw in Thursday's Twin 125s, the entire field now comes down pit road at once to refuel, causing major congestion, action and plenty of headaches.

If Junior's pit crew does its job, his only worry will be avoiding "The Big One" on the track, the multi-car accident that has punctuated restrictor plate racing for years. The good news for him is the lead cars aren't usually involved in these melees, which regularly plague the middle of the pack. Stay out front and you can watch armageddon from your rear view mirror.

Yes, it's hard not to envision the red number 8 parked at Daytona USA on Monday morning. But then again, the black number 3 should have been there alot sooner.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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