Posted: Thursday February 17, 2011 11:15AM ; Updated: Friday February 18, 2011 5:22PM
Bruce Martin
Bruce Martin>INSIDE NASCAR

SI.com's Guide to the 53rd Daytona 500

Story Highlights

NASCAR has taken steps to limit speeds, but will cars continue to push 200 mph?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will try to end his drought 10 years after his father's death

Expect to hear plenty about the two-car draft and Daytona's repaved surface

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Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. end his 93-race winless drought by reaching Victory Lane at Daytona?
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 can propel a driver to prominence, just ask Jamie McMurray, the surprise winner of the 2010 event. It's probably the only race that comes close to matching the accomplishment of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. It is also the start of a grueling 36-race season that ends four days before Thanksgiving.

An iconic name will be the focus of Sunday's race. It has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. NASCAR is honoring the seven-time Cup champion with a moment of silence on the third lap of Sunday's race.

It's a spectacular way for NASCAR to start its season, and what follows are some other storylines worth noting at the 53rd Daytona 500.

Five Things To Keep An Eye On During The Race

1. Will cars continue to run over 200 mph? In the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona a week ago, the highest speed recorded was 206 mph. That's something NASCAR isn't comfortable with, which is why it instituted a couple of rules changes in the wake of that race. For starters, the size for the restrictor plate was reduced from 1/64th of an inch to 57/64ths. That's a decrease of 12-horsepower and will lower the rpms after some teams reported running over 9,000 rpms in the Shootout. NASCAR also lowered the tolerance in the air inlet on the front grille, hoping to keep drivers from staying locked in two-car packs that tend to raise speed. Time will tell if the moves worked. In Wednesdays practice session, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle both topped 200 mph, but no one reached 206.

2. How the new track surface allows cars to go three-wide. The repaving of Daytona after a pothole marred last year's race has provided impressive grip. That has featured three-wide racing in groups of two-car packs. By having grip on the low, middle and upper grooves, race drivers can use lines unavailable before. That will create a whole new dynamic for the Daytona 500. Although it is a restrictor-plate track, Daytona used to be about handling while Talladega was flat-out racing. Now Daytona is also flat-out and handling is no longer at issue.

3. The rapid closing rate between one two-car pack and another. Because of the new front nose and the rear spoiler, the draft works perfectly for two cars when the second car is tucked underneath the rear of the lead car. That allows them to achieve speeds around 200 mph, but at some point these cars have to unlock to keep the engines from overheating. When that happens, the next two-car pack has a closing rate of nearly 20 mph faster. The dangerous combination could lead to more crashes.

GALLERY: CELEBRITY PICKS TO WIN THE DAYTONA 500

4. Can big-name drivers who lose the lead two-car pack can get back to the front. It was obvious in the Shootout that if the second or third two-car pack was too far behind the lead tandem near the end of the race, they were mere spectators for the finish. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over 500 miles in the Daytona 500.

5. Unlikely partners. At some point in the race there will be an alliance between drivers who simply don't like one another (more on that later). But in this new style of racing look for a few unlikely pairings -- just don't expect them to last any longer than either side needs it to.

Five Favorites To Reach Victory Lane

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. So he crashed in Wednesday's practice session and will have to start at the rear of the field in a backup car. If Junior is ever going to break out of his long winless streak, what better time than now? What better time than here? It's NASCAR's biggest race and the 10-year anniversary of his father's death. At one time Dale Jr. dominated the restrictor-plate tracks, including his victory in the 2004 Daytona 500, but his career has hit the skids.

As far as Earnhardt's new starting spot, if he finds the right drafting partner, he can be back to the front by the 20-lap mark. In a restrictor-plate race, cars drop to the back and make it back to the front several times throughout the race. In this case, Earnhardt's job just got a little harder but not impossible.

2. Kevin Harvick. He won the '07 Daytona 500 and showed his restrictor-plate ability last April at Talladega when he beat teammate Clint Bowyer by just a few inches when the yellow light was turned on because of a crash on the last lap. Harvick has the benefit of an Earnhardt Childress Racing engine and those have been quite impressive so far at Daytona.

Keep in mind that it was Harvick who took over the car at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death. While there has been plenty of focus and fan sentiment for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win, there are plenty of old-school racers who would like to see team owner Richard Childress return to Victory Lane.

In nine Daytona 500 starts, Harvick has four top-five and five top-10 finishes. He was 12th last year but with a new style of racing at Daytona, Harvick has other fast teammates in Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard to work with in the race.

But what Harvick really has is the instinct that is necessary to succeed in this high-risk, high-reward race.

3. Clint Bowyer. He's another driver who has been impressive this week at Daytona. In five Daytona 500s, Bowyer has two top-five finishes, including fourth the past two years. He also has three top-10 finishes.

As with teammate Harvick, Bowyer has ECR engines. For him it'll be a matter of making the right moves at the right time to be in the right two-car pack at the end of the race. Bowyer has just as good a chance as anyone to take the checkered flag.

4. Tony Stewart. The two-time Cup champion has three victories at Daytona but all three were in the July 400-mile race. He is 0-12 in the 500 but has an impressive three top-five and six top-10 finishes in the race. With his racer's mentality and veteran savvy, Stewart appears destined to one day win the event, it's all just a matter of when circumstances fall in his favor.

5. Jamie McMurray. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver had a Cinderella season in 2010 and he showed that success was no fluke as he finished second in last week's Shootout. Just as the RCR cars have superior horsepower, McMurray also has an ECR engine under the hood of his Chevrolet, and that can be a big advantage this year.

 
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