"My career will end with or without a Daytona 500 win," says Rudd, who'll drive the Wood Brothers Ford this year. "But it sure would be nice to put that trophy on my mantle-right beside the Brickyard 400. The Woods have won the race four times and were second last year. I like my chances." Adds crew chief Leonard Wood, "We haven't had a driver of Rudd's experience since David Pearson." That was 1976 in perhaps the most exciting finish in NASCAR history after his and Petty's cars wrecked on the final lap.

Among the 30-somethings, Tony Stewart is a two-time winner of the Bud Shootout, scheduled at night for the first time (February 8) before afternoon 500 qualifying (February 9) but the good fortune has not carried over. He hasn't had a Top 10 in four 500s. Last year, he limped two laps before the engine in his Pontiac quit. By race week, though, Stewart, 31, will be a top pick-in a Chevrolet. Don't dismiss Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte, who've gotten a whiff of the roses from second place, or Matt Kenseth, another threat in owner Jack Roush's five-Ford armada.

The slate is clean once again, the highs and lows of 2002 are in the book, excitement and anxiety building. Enough optimism and confidence flow from drivers and teams to fill Lake Lloyd. Life begins anew for NASCAR racers at Daytona in February. Everyone who makes the race thinks he can win-until one does.

CIRCLE TRACK'S 2003 DAYTONA 500 ODDS SHEET*
Average Finish
Odds Driver Starts Wins Finish Last Five Comment
2-1 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3 0 14.6 13,2,29 Inspired by late father.
Michael Waltrip 16 1 17.6 9,5,39,1,5 At his best at Daytona.
3-1 Jeff Gordon 10 2 16.4 16,1,34,30,9 Big races, money attract.
4-1 Kurt Busch 2 0 22.5 41,4 Could be youngest winner.
5-1 Sterling Marlin 21 2 16 22,32,24,7,8 Hold the red flags.
Ryan Newman 1 0 7 7 Another super soph.
6-1 Dale Jarrett 14 3 18.7 34,37,1,22,14 Most wins, active driver
Jimmie Johnson 1 0 15 15 Young gun is cocked.
7-1 Bill Elliott 24 2 12.4 10,27,3,5,11 Last won 500 in 1987.
Ricky Rudd 25 0 18.8 42,30,15,4,38 Win long overdue.
Ward Burton 8 1 17.7 25,24,8,35,1 Needs more 2002 luck.