These drivers merit watching on Sunday

Updated: February 19, 2006, 1:49 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Their motivations are varied. Still, every racer who flicks his ignition following actor James Caan's command to start engines Sunday is chasing Daytona dreams.

For some, like Elliott Sadler and Bobby Labonte, the hopes are for redemption from struggling times.

For others, like Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, it's for continued success.

Independent racer Kirk Shelmerdine, without a sponsor or a fancy motorcoach home, is simply eager to experience the thrill of racing once more.

The rookies are looking to start their Cup careers with a bang.

The drivers to watch in Sunday's race are many, including some who harbor serious hopes for victory. The favorites? Perhaps Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. But there are others fiercely in contention, too.

FOUR TO WATCH

Elliott Sadler, No. 38 Ford

After posting his highest Daytona 500 finish of second in 2002, Sadler has failed to finish in the top 10 in this race. This year, he's harboring higher hopes. He posted the fourth-fastest speed in time trials last week and won his Duel 150 qualifying race on Thursday. His crew has been teeming with confidence, excited about how the car is working in the draft and how the new Ford Fusion, replacing last year's Taurus, is working out so far.

Sadler said it's all up to him, now. He's just got to hit his marks and stay focused -- which is something he knows he can do.

"This is the Daytona 500," he said. "This is what we live for, so we're focused from the green flag to the checkered flag. It is a long race and it's a very trying race. There are so many things to think about -- getting on and off pit road the correct way -- not losing the draft -- not knocking your fenders in. Those are all things that can hurt you, so this is a very trying race -- not really physically as much as it is mentally. It's a 200-mile-an-hour chess match. At the end of the day, you're drained. … But it's worth it. This is our Super Bowl."

Tony Stewart, No. 20 Chevrolet

Stewart hasn't been impressive in qualifying or the Duel 150 qualifying race. But neither winning a pole nor winning a qualifying race was his goal coming into this weekend.

"I want to win the race," he said.

And he did win the Busch Series race on Saturday. Though the Busch cars are shaped differently than their Cup counterparts and, thus, work differently in the draft, there's certainly some advantages which translate from strong finishes in the Busch race to the Cup race. Last year, Stewart won the Busch race and was a player at the end of the 500 before finishing seventh.

Bobby Labonte, No. 43 Dodge

Labonte is carrying a tremendous amount of pressure, but he's never paid attention to that before -- so why start now. After leaving the Joe Gibbs Racing team with which he won a championship in 2000, Labonte joined Petty Enterprises, driving the flagship car which has struggled since its prime when driven by Richard Petty. And now Labonte has to chase a 500 win from the back of the pack after his engine blew during Saturday's practice, forcing his team to replace it.

Since Petty retired, the No. 43 has found Victory Lane three times -- as opposed to the 36 races Petty won in the car during NASCAR's modern era. It's been six years since the 43 won a race.

But Labonte is looking to change that -- and in Daytona fashion. He posted the fifth-fastest qualifying lap last week and finished fourth in his Duel 150 on Thursday. The fact that he came from the back to the front, he said, bodes well. What's even better is that team owner and teammate Kyle Petty was near the front, too, allowing the tandem to draft together.

"We started in the front, went to the back and came back to the front," Labonte said. "Now we've just got to figure out a way to get closer to the front. A top five finish in the 150 is a good start. It gives us something to build on for Sunday."

Petty is just as optimistic. And while he would love to put his No. 45 Dodge in Victory Lane, he cannot stress how huge it would be for the organization to see Labonte win.

"From a company standpoint the 43 is important; it has to win," Petty said. "That's who we are. That's our brand."

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet

Johnson has eight Cup starts at Daytona under his belt, and has managed top 10s in all but two. In fact, since finishing 15th in his first Daytona 500 back in 2002, Johnson has finished third, fifth and fifth. This year, he feels strongly that he can continue his success, if not nab his first Daytona victory. But he won't have his crew chief and chief strategist Chad Knaus around to help. Knaus was ejected from Daytona last week when NASCAR discovered a raised rear window on the No. 48 Chevy following qualifying.

Darian Grubb, lead engineer for the 48, took over for Knaus. Under his direction, the team managed a fourth-place finish in their Duel 150.

"It's going really good," Johnson said. "It was a very wise decision to put Darian in the position. He's been a No. 48 guy since the beginning. The crew members know him and I know him. When we can talk to Chad at night on the telephone, we're all talking the same language. We're not bringing someone new in and having him learn the personalities and learn how we communicate. It's been as seamless as we could expect."

ONE TO ROOT FOR

Kirk Shelmerdine, No. 27 Chevrolet

The former crew chief for Dale Earnhardt, who barely made the race and was ecstatic just to participate. He stayed in a low-budget motorcoach parked behind Turn 2, far from the security-guarded luxury of the main driver's motorcoach lot. Shelmerdine starts 42nd.

QUICK HITS

Jeff Burton, driver of Richard Childress Racing's No. 31 car, will start from the pole on Sunday. Can he finish there? Childress' group has largely struggled since its premier driver, Dale Earnhardt, died here five years ago. But with heavy emphasis on its plate program, Childress hopes to turn a corner this weekend in the 500 and carry some momentum into the season. But this isn't the first pole a Childress driver has snagged at Daytona since Earnhardt died. Jeff Green started on the pole for Childress in 2003. He finished 39th.

Kurt Busch will officially begin his career as driver of the No. 2 Dodge Charger vacated by retired driver Rusty Wallace. The 2 car hasn't finished among the top five in the points standings since 1998, but everyone with the Penske Racing South organization is confident Busch, the 2004 champ, is the man to turn fortunes around. Starting with Sunday's 500.

Denny Hamlin won the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race to kick off NASCAR's Speedweeks racing, but even more attention has focused on the rookie class which had already been touted as the strongest in NASCAR Cup history. Clint Bowyer, Reed Sorenson, David Stremme, Martin Truex, and J.J. Yeley, all driving for well-funded teams, are among the heralded class and feeling increased pressure to deliver results quickly now that Hamlin has sent the buzz into a frenzy.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com

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