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.

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

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.

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