"The race is a lot different from 15-20 years ago," recalls Petty. "It used to be the 'only race of the year.' Maybe we started preparing for it earlier than most. Now everybody shoots for it. We never tested and now everybody does. It's no longer cut-and-dried. Used to be there were three or four cars that ran wide open and one of them usually won the race. Now everybody runs wide open and in a bunch. You don't know what's going to happen. Rookies sit on the pole. The restrictor plate slowed the cars, put people running up front who ordinarily wouldn't be, and gave more people a chance to win. Luck plays a much bigger role in the outcome."

Equalized Cars Two new cars, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Pontiac Grand Prix, will make their debut, but that may not have the impact of past races. The four competing brands, while retaining identifying features, will be more alike this year than ever because of standard body location and more so-called "common templates," NASCAR says. "Fortunately, the new Chevrolet and Pontiac are very similar to the other two brands," says Gary Nelson, NASCAR managing director of competition. "We're working on templates to even out some of the differences in the four brands, and aerodynamically, from one make to the next, they're going to look a lot closer in the wind tunnel." NASCAR has 34 templates for Winston Cup cars; all but 6 are identical. "The cars will not be an issue this year," says Ray Smith, Pontiac's Winston Cup program manager, adding that the best drivers and best-prepared cars should go to the front.

Not incidentally, Chevrolets have won 3 of the past 5 Daytona 500s and 7 of the past 10. Fords won twice. A Dodge won last year for the first time since 1975. A Pontiac hasn't won since 1983.

The aerodynamic rules package used with a 71/48-inch restrictor plate at Daytona last year is expected to remain essentially the same. "We've run four restrictor-plate races (two each at Daytona and Talladega) with this package and it's working pretty well," Nelson says.

Smaller fuel cells will be required to force more pit stops and discourage bunching of cars, but capacity may be reduced, probably from 13 to 11 gallons, according to Winston Cup Director John Darby.

The Faves It's a no-brainer to cast Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip, driving Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolets, as early pre-race favorites for the 45th Daytona 500 (see accompanying odds sheet). Not to be chicken, the nod, on a hunch spiced with a dash of sentiment, goes to Earnhardt Jr., though Waltrip, the 2001 champion, has the better record at Big D. Waltrip's victory ended a career-long zero-for-462 non-winning streak in his 15th 500 try, first win for DEI. It was tear-stained and draped in black because Earnhardt Sr., who kept the faith and gave Waltrip a chance, died on the last lap. Waltrip is still not a consistent threat on some tracks, but he is extraordinary at Daytona, notching three Top 5s and four Top 10s in the past five 500s, winning the Pepsi 400 last year.

Waltrip or Earnhardt Jr., 28, were first and second in both races in 2001. Junior had a miserable experience with flat tires in last year's 500, finishing 29th, and was 6th to his teammate in the Pepsi 400. But Little E. roars into this year's 500 on the momentum of a sweep last year at Talladega, the sister restrictor-plate track.

Junior says he feels the pressure to win much quicker than his dad. "To win it early would take a lot of pressure off of me, because the older I get I think the harder it will be to win," Earnhardt Jr. says, even though his Dad won at age 46. "I also believe that I can't be successful trying too hard. I think I race as well and know I have as much confidence at Daytona as Talladega. ... My chances are good. I feel I'll rank among the top three favorites."