SafetyOne year after Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, the changes NASCAR has made for 2002 will be front and center in everyone's mind. NASCAR made mandatory either the HANS or Hutchens Devices for all drivers in its top three divisions, so that will bear watching. Crash recorders will be mandatory in all three divisions at Daytona too, so data is readily available for analysis. Left unaddressed at press time is a decision on whether to require helmets for over-the-wall crewmembers after the debacle at Homestead in which three Robert Yates crewmen were injured.

If ever there was a time when racing in general and NASCAR in specific needed a safe, non-controversial race, it is here at Daytona. The majority of NASCAR races are safe, if you look at the number of miles raced without incident. However, the arena has gotten larger, and new fans aren't as likely to accept "it's just racing" as an answer when somebody dies. This is something to watch at Daytona, yes, but it is also something that must be paid attention to at all times.

Ricky RuddThe Virginian, coming off his best season ever, is another one of those snake-bit Daytona drivers who cannot seem to catch the right break at the right time. Short of Dave Marcis pulling off a huge upset or Richard Petty coming out of retirement to win No. 8, there could hardly be a more popular winner than Rudd. He has the horses with Robert Yates power, and he has the savvy needed to outwit all the younger pups in a game of high-speed chicken. What he doesn't have is a rabbit's foot, a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover. Should he find any one of these, it just might be his year.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.Tires were a big story last year, when Goodyear decided that softer tires were contributing too much to the cornering speeds at places like Daytona, Talladega and all the cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile, D-shaped ovals that dot the NASCAR schedule. So Goodyer made the tires harder, and many teams cursed them for hockey pucks with the centers cut out. In reality, many teams had to figure out what made their cars work with harder compounds on the ground, and that took time. This year should be more push-the-limit than find-the-edge, as teams begin to get more aggressive with the tires. However, this still bears watching, as the fastest cars in the world go nowhere without dependable shoes.