Every year, NASCAR opens its season with its biggest event. The Daytona 500, run this year on Feb.17, is the culmination of two weeks of hard-charging, let's-rock-'n'-roll racing known as Speedweeks. All the pre-season testing, which is really just a continuation of the previous season's racing, boils down to three hours on a winter Sunday afternoon. The first week is about speed and winning the pole, or at least posting a solid qualifying effort to be assured of making the starting field for The Great American Race. The second week, with the Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying races, is about making the right moves at the right time. There are also races for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck and Busch Series, the True Value International Race of Champions, ARCA and the Goody's Dash Series.
But on 500 Sunday, when the green flag waves and the pre-season becomes the real thing, there will be quite a few things to keep track of and plenty to watch. Therefore, Circle Track has consulted the tea leaves, rolled the dice and pulled out the Magic 8 Ball to offer its Ten to Watch at Daytona list for 2002. Read on.
Dale Earnhardt Inc.The tea leaves spelled "Budweiser" and the Magic 8 Ball responded with a smirk when we put this question to it. DEI cars driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip won three of the four restrictor-plate races in 2001, including a pair of one-two finishes in the Daytona races. Waltrip is the defending Daytona 500 champion, although his victory was overshadowed by the death of team owner Dale Earnhardt just 200 yards from the finish line on the final lap. Junior was second, just a car length or so behind.
Earnhardt Jr. won the Pepsi 400 there in July in an emotional return to the track that claimed his father, and Waltrip pushed him across the finish line. The two then met on the infield grass for an impromptu victory ceremony. To win the race, Earnhardt Jr. came from sixth on the final restart to claim the lead, and in one of those supremely ironic twists that seem to lend themselves to NASCAR events, took the top spot in Turn 4, almost at the very spot his father crashed five months before.
The three-team DEI effort seems to have hit upon the combination for restrictor-plate racing, but there is no telling what the new aerodynamic rules will do to that combination. When NASCAR met with teams in November to discuss aero rules for restrictor-plate tracks, the result was the elimination of the spoiler flange and roof air deflectors from the top of the cars and an increase in the angle of the rear spoiler. The air dam, or valance, height was to be determined by the results in pre-season testing at Daytona and Talladega.
Sterling MarlinCoo Coo's boy was the best Dodge in the race last year, despite finishing seventh to polesitter Bill Elliott's fifth. He won the first Gatorade 125-mile qualifying race to earn the third starting spot and was in the lead pack battling for the victory off the final corner when he nudged the rear of Earnhardt Sr.'s car as the latter surged up the track.
In the aftermath of Earnhardt's death, Marlin received death threats from grieving Earnhardt fans, and a good run this year would go a long way toward erasing that awful memory, or at least putting it in perspective. Throughout Dodge's comeback season, Marlin was by far the most consistent Mopar man, winning at Michigan in August for the nameplate's first victory since 1977. That triumph also ended a 170-race personal winless streak dating back to July 1996 when he won at-you guessed it-Daytona. He was the only driver in the top 10 in points from start to finish in 2001, winning at Michigan and Lowe's Motor Speedway.