As added incentive, Earnhardt Jr. guns for his second straight Winston "No Bull 5" $1 million bonus he collected as winner at Talladega in October for the last prize in 2002. The other eligible drivers are Kurt Busch, Jeff Green, Ricky Rudd, and Tony Stewart.
Jeff Gordon, a favorite anywhere, especially at races with big bucks and prestige at stake, is rated third. After winning in 1999, the four-time driving champion finished in the 30s twice before battling back to ninth last year, in spite of late contact with Marlin that ruined a serious bid for a third victory. Winning in his fifth Daytona 500 start, Gordon has logged four Top 5s and five Top 10s in 10 tries.
"Junior and Michael have had the cars to beat for two years, and I imagine they will again this year," Gordon says. "But you never know. We had them beat, and I felt we had the car to win last year until Sterling and I got together."
The Young Also-Faves The Young Guns, hot as a $2 pistol in 2002, are eager to join Earnhardt in the fray. Kurt Busch, 24, fourth in a Roush Ford last year, Ryan Newman, 25, and Jimmie Johnson, 27, are rambunctious kids capable of making the Winner's Circle their playpen. They're talented, aggressive, and fearless. Busch is aware that he can become the race's youngest winner. Last year's rookie sensations Newman, switching from Penske Ford to Dodge, and Johnson, wheeling the Hendrick/ Gordon Chevy, finished 7th and 15th, respectively, in their first 500. Jamie McMurray, 26, is listed at 10-1, but we won't raise a brow if the super yearling drives Chip Ganassi's Dodge to victory. Kevin Harvick, 27, who crashed out of his first 500 last year, hopes to break a sophomore jinx with a Rally Monkey.
"It's the greatest race of the year and we're going to prepare for it the best we can," Busch says. "I like unrestricted races better, but we've got a great chance to win." Indeed, Busch says his forte is 1.5-mile speedways, but two of his first three wins were at short tracks.
"My first time at Daytona last year, I struggled in the qualifying race and my car was the last to make the 500 on position from the 125," adds Newman, a cool stoic who has the emotions of a dish rag. "That was huge. Not knowing what to expect in the race, it was really cool to get up front and race with the guys I had watched for the past 10 years from the grandstand. I like to think we can do it again-in a Dodge."
Over-40 and Able Jarrett, Elliott, and Marlin are given a good chance of winning again, their 500 experience and record overshadowing their age. Jarrett won in 2000. Elliott, who last won the 500 in 1987, has recorded two Top 5s in the past three races. Marlin, who won back-to-back in 1994-1995, has consecutive Top 10s. Moreover, Elliott, since switching to Ray Evernham's Dodge, and Marlin to Ganassi's Dodge, have rediscovered Victory Circle the past two seasons. Marlin eagerly returns after a neck injury that might well have cost him the 2002 championship, saying, "We led the most laps (78) last year and a bunch in 2001. I think we'll be in good shape this year."
Time is running short for other over-40 veterans to know the ecstasy of winning the Great American race. Ricky Rudd has tried 25 times, most by an active driver, with a best of third and 10 top 10s. Rusty Wallace, with 20 starts, may be the best bet in the 40s crowd to win with three Top 5s and four Top 10s in his past five starts. In 24 attempts, Terry Labonte has three 2nds and a 13th average finish, one of the lowest. Mark Martin, with 18 starts, is gaining with fifth and sixth finishes the past two years.