While traditions may fall victim to new options, you can realistically expect the tradition of starting the racing season in Florida to survive even the strongest of challenges. The ritual gets at least one new twist in 2004 with the increase of night racing at Daytona International Speedway.
One oval track event was held under the lights in 2003, and that proved to be a rousing success. For 2004, both the Budweiser Shootout and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck series Florida Dodge Dealers 250 will be contested under the lights.
The Daytona International Speedway kicks off racing for three NASCAR divisions as well as the ARCA series. There will be a few changes in store for visitors this year as mandated by business decisions. The familiar orange "76" balls perched above the track will either be replaced with a new look or removed altogether. After a long relationship with NASCAR, Unocal concluded its association with the '03 season finale in south Florida.
Also gone is the stalwart R.J. Reynolds and its Winston brand. As title sponsors of the premier division, Winston made its name synonymous with major league racing. Television and radio announcers have spent the off-season retraining themselves to say "Nextel Cup" after years of "Winston Cup." The sponsorship change brings a new logo and ample opportunity for exposure, especially in the youth market that was off limits to tobacco advertising.
On track, there will be the usual effects of the "silly season" with a number of drivers switching teams. Former Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton goes from 22 to 0. Florida native Joe Nemechek jumps from the 25 to the 01. While other changes were still in the works, there were at least three drivers who were going to make the transition from the Busch series directly into Winston, uh Nextel Cup. Scott Wimmer will get his shot by filling the seat at Bill Davis Racing in the 22 car. Scott Riggs kept his Busch number, 10, but will be driving a Nextel Cup car in place of Johnny Benson. The biggest change came at Hendrick Motorsports where Brian Vickers made the move to the big leagues. The addition of three Busch drivers into a finite number of opportunities meant at least three Cup-experienced drivers were looking for work. In reality, it was three more to the already growing number who'd been displaced over the years.
The Busch series and Craftsman Truck series faced fewer aspects of transition. The return of Jack Sprague and Mike Skinner to the truck wars added some excitement to that series, but nothing will overshadow the biggest change in the Craftsman Truck world.
The Florida Dodge Dealers Craftsman Truck race will officially mark the continuation of a development that received less attention five years ago. Toyota, which had been involved in the Goody's Dash series (now under private ownership), has brought teams equipped with Tundra trucks and thundering pushrod engines. The popular belief is that Toyota will test the waters via the truck program and then gear up for an assault on the Nextel Cup. Toyota Racing Development (TRD) has done extensive work in creating a "stock car" program and has established a base in North Carolina to facilitate the program. All indications that Toyota will be a player in the high stakes game have proven to be factual. The real test comes with the drop of the green flag at Daytona.
Daytona's racing actually starts with more than the 2 1/2-mile oval. Another tradition is the 24 Hours of Daytona, scheduled to begin on January 31. The Rolex 24 at Daytona will feature Daytona Prototypes and GT machines doing battle. The stars of the road circuit will be abundant, but a number of NASCAR drivers are expected to ply their trade as well. For some, it serves as an unofficial test session for places like Infineon and Watkins Glen, but most are there for the sheer thrill of competition.
Daytona's focus shifts to the oval the following week. On Saturday, February 7, the ARCA Re/Max series will contest the Advance Discount Auto Parts 200 in the late afternoon. The on-track action continues with the Budweiser Shootout. More than 20 drivers had secured starting spots in the race open to pole winners from the previous season. As mentioned, this year's race will be run under the lights.
On Sunday, February 8, drivers will hit the track for a shot at the front row of the "Great American Race" during Bud Pole Day festivities. Only two drivers will secure a guaranteed starting spot in the Daytona 500. The rest of the field will circle the calendar for Thursday, February 12.
When Thursday arrives, the fields will be lined up for a pair of qualifying races. The Gatorade 125s, affectionately known as the Twin 125s, determine the starting lineup for Sunday's big race. Drivers qualifying in the odd-numbered positions (first, third, fifth, etc.) will line up in the first race. Drivers with even-numbered qualification postings will race in the second event. The fastest two qualifiers are not exempt, even though they have guaranteed spots. For them, it's additional track time. The top 14 finishers from each race (not including the cars already qualified) earn an automatic berth in the Daytona 500. This sets the field at 30 cars. The next six positions go to the cars with the best qualifying times that didn't make the show through the 125-mile qualifier. From there, the standard provisional rules fill the field.