Jeff GordonYour soon-to-be defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion has a streak of his own at Daytona. The last time he won the series championship, in 1998, he opened defense of his title with a victory in the Daytona 500. It's pretty easy to pick Gordon as one to watch at Daytona, as the four-time series champ always seems to run well there, but now that he and crew chief Robbie Loomis seem to have figured things out it might just be back to the same old domination of the 1997-98 seasons.
Winning the title in 2001 chased away a lot of ghosts, particularly those who whispered he'd never be dominant again without Ray Evernham. He's got the old fire in his eyes these days, matching the flames on the hood of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Dale JarrettHere's another easy pick. The man who was so dominant at Daytona in 2000 hasn't lost a step; he just stepped wrong in 2001, getting caught in one of the big wrecks in the late stages of the race. If horsepower counts, then Jarrett is a threat because team owner Robert Yates and son Doug still put the most ponies under their drivers. Now, if we could do something about that paint job
NASCARRules in most sports stay around for at least a couple of seasons. In NASCAR, they seem to change pit stop by pit stop. While that characterization is slightly exaggerated, there have been some rather comical rules explanations in the past at Daytona. The aero changes made in November (see No. 1) leave the door open for a return to the ludicrous "5&5" days where cars lost fractions of inches off the valance and rear spoiler every time one make of car passed another, or so it seemed. NASCAR's rules pronouncements might be No. 1 on the to-watch list by the time the field is set for the 500.
Joe Gibbs Racing, Bobby Labonte and Tony StewartWhen will this team and these drivers catch a break at Daytona? Last year the two drivers were eliminated in the full-field scrum on the backstretch 25 laps from the finish. In fact, Stewart's Home Depot Pontiac ended up atop Labonte's Interstate Batteries machine in a bizarre piggyback ride as the crash wound down. Snake-bit doesn't cover this team; it's more like being swallowed whole. Despite qualifying poorly (Stewart started 24th, Labonte 37th), the two drivers were in the thick of things late in the race when all hell broke loose. This could be the year it all works out.
Engine buildersWith the advent of the one-engine rule for 2002, engine builders will be at the forefront this year. Whoever can figure out how to make an engine go 750 miles instead of the normal 500 will be a hero. Those who can't will be zeroes, or at least will be scurrying back to the dyno to regroup. The one-engine rule will be altered somewhat by the fact that teams have both the 125-mile qualifying races and the 500 in the same week, but as yet those alterations have not been announced.
The way it stands now, teams need permission from NASCAR to change engines prior to a race. Boiled down, if there's a connecting rod hanging outside the engine block, you get to change. If not, it's fix it and hope. The trouble is going to come from the penalties assessed by NASCAR for changing an engine without permission. Right now, it's start at the tail of the field. Realistically, if a team is starting 36th, why not change an engine? You're only going to lose seven spots, and the draft will generally keep the leaders off the rear bumper until the first caution. It will be interesting