WHO WILL WIN THE DAYTONA 500?
The car with the horsepower to steer clear of the inevitable Big One. That points to DEI
You're pretty much guaranteed to see two things at the Great American Race: too many bare midriffs that never should have been bared and a big ol' late-afternoon wreck. Slowed by restrictor plates, which have created a more level playing field, the cars circle the superspeedway at 185 mph in one or two tight packs. That's not a problem early in the race, but when the money's on the line, drivers will do anything to gain a position, or to keep from losing one. "When the race starts, a guy might give you a foot," says two-time 500 champion Bill Elliott. "You get halfway, and he might give you six inches. At the end he's taking your space. So what's going to happen? The Big One." In the past two years five of the six Big Ones—each of which involved at least 10 cars—at Daytona and the sport's other superspeedway, Talladega, occurred within 26 laps of the finish.
Every season NASCAR tries to break up these huge packs, and every season it fails. This year's ploy is to require the cars to use smaller gas tanks, which will force drivers to pit more often. That, the thinking goes, will create more space on the track. When NASCAR experimented with the idea at Talladega last fall, though, it only kept the cars separated for a few laps. (There were, however, no wrecks.)
And so the outcome of this year's 500 will come down to the same thing it does at most every superspeedway race: what's under the hood. "At plate tracks like Daytona your speed comes more from the car than it does from the driver," says John Andretti. "So if you've got a strong horse, it's going to make up more for you at Daytona than somewhere else."
In other words, drivers can let it rip at superspeedways, where handling counts for far less than horsepower. Right now no NASCAR team is producing stronger ponies than Dale Earnhardt Inc., whose drivers have won six of the last eight superspeedway races. Four of those victories (three at Talladega, one at the midsummer Daytona race) belong to Dale Earnhardt Jr. With a horse that can get him to the front of the pack quickly—and, he hopes, put the inevitable Big One in his rearview mirror—Junior is our pick to land his first big one: the 2003 Daytona 500 trophy.
FIVE MORE THINGS...
you need to know, from Penske's exit to the entrance of a Foyt and a Fittipaldi
1. THE DAYTONA 500 DOESN'T MEAN MUCH
At least in the grand scheme. Winning the sport's biggest race gives you prestige, a big check and the adulation of the cooing Winston girls in Victory Lane, but as far as the points race goes, you're better off last. Michael Waltrip and Ward Burton (right), the 2001 and '02 champs, didn't finish in the top 20 of the points race. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who completed all of five miles before blowing his engine in last year's race, won the Winston Cup. Since 1993 only one Cup champ had a too five finish in the 500.
2. LOOK OUT FOR THOSE INTREPID DRIVERS
Two years ago Dodge returned to Winston Cup after a 16-year layoff. Not wanting to bomb in their first race back, they focused way too much on their superspeedway program. As a result they aced qualifying for the Daytona 500, then looked like the expansion team they were for the rest of the season. But by the end of Year Two, they had built such an impressive operation that Roger Penske ended his nine-year association with Ford to join the Dodge program. With Ryan Newman (above) and Rusty Wallace now in the fold, Dodge has a strong chance to win a title in just its third season.
3. PONTIAC IS HURTING
In the off-season, owner Joe Gibbs (right) and his drivers—Stewart and 2000 champ Bobby Labonte—left Pontiac for Chevy, which has superior resources and a more dedicated racing program. As a result, Pontiac will struggle to put a driver in the top 15, and it will be sorely lacking in the pitchman department. Would you buy a Grand Prix because Mike Skinner drives one?
4. THE OPEN-WHEEL EXODUS IS JUST BEGINNING
When did Andretti, Fittipaldi, Foyt and Mears last go head-to-head in a major race? If you answered the 1992 Indy 500, you're right—but only until this year's Daytona 500, which will likely feature John Andretti (Mario's nephew), Christian Fittipaldi (Emerson's nephew), Larry Foyt (A.J.'s son, left) and Casey Mears (Rick's nephew). So why are these kin of Indy car legends flocking to NASCAR? Cash. Don't be surprised to see '99 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack and '02 IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. at a NASCAR track before long.