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.
"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."
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.
"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. |
|8-1 ||Mark Martin ||18 ||0 ||21.4 ||7,38,31,5,6 ||Gaining on first win. |
| ||Rusty Wallace ||20 ||0 ||20.8 ||5,8,4,3,18 ||Much improved in 500. |
| ||Bobby Labonte ||10 ||0 ||21.1 || 2,25,6,40,34 ||Better than his record. |
|9-1 ||Tony Stewart ||4 ||0 ||28.5 ||28,17,26,43 ||Last to first perhaps. |
| ||Jeff Burton ||9 ||0 ||19.3 ||40,35,2,19,12 ||Like to follow big brother. |
| ||Matt Kenseth ||3 ||0 ||21.3 ||10,21,33 ||Another Roush threat. |
|10-1 ||Kevin Harvick ||1 ||0 ||36 ||36 ||Sophomore jinx over. |
| ||Jamie McMurray ||0 ||0 ||N/A ||N/A ||Wonder Boy. |
| ||Elliott Sadler ||4 ||0 ||24.5 ||40,38,18,2 ||New ride, Yates power. |
| ||Johnny Benson ||6 ||0 ||19.6 ||28,17,12,28,10 ||Juiced by 1st W.C. win. |
|12-1 ||Terry Labonte ||24 ||0 ||13.1 ||13,38,7,24,20 ||Second three times. |
| ||Ricky Craven ||7 ||0 ||16.2 ||3,14,28,23,17 ||Solid in new Pontiac. |
| ||Jeff Green ||1 ||0 ||30 ||30 ||Better the second time. |
| ||Jeremy Mayfield ||9 ||0 ||19.1 ||3,20,11,9,39 ||Needs some "Octane 93." |
|14-1 ||Robby Gordon ||5 ||0 ||20.4 ||18,16,18,37,13 ||Has his best shot at win. |
|15-1 ||Ken Schrader ||18 ||0 ||16 ||4,6,9,13,16 ||Has nine Top-10 finishes. |
| ||Mike Skinner ||6 ||0 ||14.8 ||8,4,16,26,23 ||Badly needs W.C. win. |
| ||Bobby Hamilton ||12 ||0 ||21.5 ||12,29,43,8,32 ||Roller-coaster record. |
|18-1 ||Kyle Petty ||21 ||0 ||23.5 ||11,7,25,16,41 ||Wants win for Adam. |
| ||Geoffrey Bodine ||21 ||1 ||18.5 ||34,34,31,39,3 ||Shocker of '02. |
| ||Jimmy Spencer ||10 ||0 ||26 ||30,16,41,30,27 ||Did not start in '02. |
| ||Steve Park ||4 ||0 ||34 ||41,34,31,31 ||Missed '02 race, injury. |
| ||Kenny Wallace ||7 ||0 ||27.4 ||22,42,29,25,30 ||Fulltime ride builds hopes. |
| ||Joe Nemechek ||8 ||0 ||33.3 ||28,38,42,11,40 ||May be underrated. |
|20-1 ||John Andretti ||9 ||0 ||32.3 ||18,43,22,39,37 ||Seeks first Top 10. |
| ||Dave Blaney ||3 ||0 ||31.3 ||27,42,25 ||Not his cup of tea so far. |
| ||Casey Atwood ||2 ||0 ||23.5 ||21,26 ||Could be sleeper. |
| ||Mike Wallace ||1 ||0 ||21 ||21 ||'02 debut not bad. |
| ||Greg Biffle ||0 ||0 ||N/A ||N/A ||Rookie could surprise. |
| ||Jerry Nadeau ||5 ||0 ||25.4 ||21,11,35,32,28 ||Much room to improve. |
|25-1 ||Brett Bodine ||14 ||0 ||25.6 ||18,24,22,15,6 ||Excels with what he has. |
| ||Jack Sprague ||0 ||0 ||N/A ||N/A ||Experienced rookie. |
| ||Todd Bodine ||3 ||0 ||34.6 ||36,37,31 ||First he must finish. |
| ||Stacy Compton ||3 ||0 ||21 ||26,10,27 ||Respectable so far. |
| ||Derrike Cope ||13 ||1 ||28.8 ||41,36,37,18,41 ||Scored big 1990 upset. |
This lineup includes selected active drivers who were expected, as of November 2002, to enter the 2003 Daytona 500.