Predict the winner and handicap the drivers for the 2003 Daytona 500? In November, more than three months before the February 16 NASCAR Winston Cup showcase race, for publication in January?

Of course, that's ridiculous and laughable. No sweat. We've always had a few loose bolts and screws. Why not? Such prognostications are likely to be as accurate-or fallacious-in January as race week. Given our dismal record, though, don't bet the farm.

The Daytona 500 is stock car racing's Super Bowl. It doesn't decide a championship, it launches a new one. The crown jewel at Daytona International Speedway is NASCAR's second-oldest superspeedway race, arguably the most prestigious and the richest, with a record purse that will exceed $12 million. It's an annual sellout and commands the highest TV ratings in motorsports. For all those reasons, the trophy is the most lucrative.

Winner's Edge Think of the Daytona 500 and two names pop up above the rest: Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, for entirely different reasons. Petty drove to a record seven victories, three more than Cale Yarborough, and holds several other marks. Earnhardt, the all-time race winner at the 2.5-mile tri-oval with 34, needed 20 years to win a 500. The Intimidator won so many preliminary events that he was the 500 favorite for a decade before the frustration ended at age 46 on a glorious day in 1998. That was his only Daytona 500 victory, but he finished second five times and compiled a low average finish of 11 in 23 starts before he was killed on the final lap in 2001.

In the more recent past, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin, and Jeff Gordon, a cereal-faced phenom when he took the circuit by storm in the mid-'90s, usurped the glory. Jarrett, 46, tied with retired Bobby Allison, is the only active driver with three victories. Elliott, 47; Marlin, 45; and Gordon, 31, have two apiece. Only four other active drivers-Michael Waltrip, 39; defending champion Ward Burton, 41; Geoffrey Bodine, 53; and Derrike Cope, 44, have a Daytona 500 win. Bodine, who won in 1986 and was a shocking third last year, and Cope, the 1990 champ, have not raced regularly for two years.

Historically, more experienced drivers win the Daytona 500. There have been few upsets in recent times, the biggest being Cope's in 1990 when Earnhardt ran over a piece of metal on the final lap. A composite winner is in his mid-30s, starts first through seventh, and drives a Chevrolet. Statistics are an aid, but they aren't reliable. As expected, drivers in the 30-39 age class have won 22 of the 44 races, but 12 were 40-46, and 9 were 25-29. Jeff Gordon is the youngest winner at age 2511/42 in 1997 and Bobby Allison the eldest at 50 in 1988. Richard Petty won in three age groups: 26, 28, 33, 35, 36, 40, and 43.

The front row has produced 16 winners, 9 from the pole; positions one through seven have started 30 winners. Bobby Allison won in 1978 coming from 33rd and Benny Parsons in 1975 came from 32nd. Eight of the past 10 winners started in the Top 7; the past two, oddly, from 19th.

Luck is More Important The race has changed since Petty's heyday. "Petty Enterprises is fortunate to have won nine 500s," says Richard Petty, who scored all of his wins and compiled most of his glittering numbers in the first 21 of 32 starts, one less start than retired Dave Marcis' record. For trivia buffs, Petty's low 12.2 average finish in his first 21 races includes a 57th place in a field of 59 cars in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, won in a photo finish by his father, Lee.