Five things to watch in the Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mornings on the beach. Afternoons strolling around, enjoying idle chitchat. Bumping into old friends and sharing laughs.
This is what a trip to Daytona Beach is supposed to be like. That's what Bill Elliott realized while enjoying his first trip to the Daytona 500 as a spectator in three decades. He realized something else, too: He's not absolutely certain he wouldn't rather be here scurrying around and preparing for one of the biggest events of the year.
"Right now is a real interesting time for all of them," Elliott said. "Everybody has put so much effort into their cars and just about everybody thinks they've got a shot at winning. It's one of the most exciting times for a driver, just getting ready for the Daytona 500."
Forty-three teams are doing some Daytona Dreaming this week. Among them: a trio of veterans still looking for their first victory in this 500-miler; a team feeling pressure and the collective breaths of competitors on their necks as they watch their once dominant speedway package lose its advantage; a driver who mastered living with the pressure of being the son of a legend and who now has to deal with pressure of defending his trophy won here last year; a racer who would rather win at another of racing's landmarks but has arguably shown a greater propensity for success at this track; and a handful of also-rans who actually have legitimate shots at shocking the racing world.
The 47th running of the Daytona 500 is upon us, and with it, five questions to which we await answers.
Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace are a combined 0-for-69 in the "Great American Race." These three future Motorsports Hall of Famers have collected trophies from most of the racetracks on the circuit through the decades. But one of the most coveted trophies in the business has eluded them.
For Martin and Wallace, this will be their last full season in NASCAR's highest series. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't have the opportunity to keep competing in the 500, but they won't have the funding or caliber of crew when they start racing part-time schedules.
Martin acknowledged as much, but he doesn't feel the same sense of tragedy or doom as the late Dale Earnhardt did in his storied 0-for-24 streak that broke in 1998. While Martin said it would be a huge honor to win here, it would mostly be special because it would mean starting the season off with a bang.
"This place has never been very kind to me," said Martin, one of the only Cup drivers who makes Daytona Beach his permanent home. "There is no special place in this place's heart for me and no special place in my heart for this particular place."
As far as Wallace is concerned, Martin's speaking for himself.
"Winning a race at any track is real special now -- it's just so hard to do," Wallace said. "But Daytona is something else. I've tried. I've seen how much it means to the guys that do it. I remember (Earnhardt's) win. I couldn't think of a better way to go out, except maybe winning a championship."
Rudd has probably been the most competitive at this track in recent years, scoring top 15 finishes in two of the past three years. Three years ago, he finished fourth.
And while he doesn't feel the sense of urgency that Martin and Wallace do right now, he doesn't believe that makes him any less passionate about Sunday.
Said Rudd: "When you've spent as much time in the sport as we have, you really understand the history of it and you really know what it means because you have so much respect for the guys who have won here in the past."
If the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of racing, then Dale Earnhardt Inc. is NASCAR's equivalent to the New England Patriots. The 2001, 2003 and 2004 Daytona 500-winning team has dominated this race the past four years, with Michael Waltrip claiming the organization's first two Daytona 500 championships and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running away with last year's.
But in an age of constantly-changing rules and terribly-kept secrets, dynasties are hard to maintain. The July races at this track have proved more difficult for DEI cars to win in recent years, prompting many to speculate that organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports have found a way to put out more horsepower at superspeedway tracks, such as Daytona International Speedway, and have thus caught up to the DEI duo of Waltrip and Junior.
Even this year's Speed Weeks has seen DEI fall off a bit. The consensus has been that the DEI cars are not as fast, relative to the competition, as in years past.
"I felt like we out-handled them and out-raced them here in July last year," Hendrick racer Jeff Gordon said. "I'm not so sure that we've got (DEI) beat yet, but we've certainly made a dent in it and we're on their radar."
Said Waltrip: "You can't really expect to have an advantage and keep it nowadays. Those guys have been gaining for a long time, but I think it's more than just the engines. It's what happens on the track."
On the track, the key to winning Daytona is running well in the draft -- the train of single-line cars connected by the force of wind running over them. If a driver chooses the right line at the right times, and has teammates and friends who are willing to get behind and push him into the lead at the end of the day, then there's always a shot at winning. Waltrip and Junior have been amazing teammates in the draft, and partnered with Tony Stewart, the trio has been a formidable force.
That's why, though DEI's horsepower might be off a little, competitors aren't gaining much confidence. After all, during the qualifying races earlier this week, Waltrip and Junior hooked up in the draft to finish first and second.
It's a good thing that Junior is such a laid back, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. The amount of pressure on his shoulders would be crippling to anybody who took life, or racing, too seriously.
As the poster boy for the sport, he is under constant pressure from NASCAR and its many sponsors to represent himself, and the sport, well. As the son of a seven-time champion, he's under tremendous pressure to maintain his family's good name in racing. And as driver of one of those DEI rigs, he's been under pressure the past four years to live up to expectations -- which were no lower than a race victory.
This year, he's got the pressure of being defending 500 champ. But Junior's dealt with weighty burdens all his racing life. He's not concerned now.
"I just go out there and do the best I can," he said. "It would be awesome to win again but, like I said, when I won the 500 the first feeling I got was relief. It wasn't jubilation, screaming or excitement. It was relief. It was like escaping something."
That's one thing Junior might be worried about. His father once said that after fighting with passion for 25 races to win the trophy he most coveted, he found himself racing the 500 with different motivations after finally breaking through. His final three races were run trying to keep pace with expectations, not trying to fulfill that sense of boy-like joy he displayed while spraying champaign in Victory Lane.
"I don't really think about it like that," Junior said. "It's never been as big a thing for me as it was for [my dad]. So, I mean, I want to win the race, but it was a relief for me last year. This year's no different."
While DEI has garnered most of the attention at this race the past few years, Tony Stewart has actually been the most dominant individual racer during recent Speed Weeks. Between the Bud Shootout, qualifying race and Daytona 500, Stewart has notched six top-10 finishes from 2002-2004, including two victories in the Shootout. This year, he won his qualifying race and, Saturday, notched his first Busch Series win with a victory in the Hershey's Take 5 300.
And while he's been held winless in the main event, four years ago it was because a wreck took him out of the running, and three years ago an engine failure on the third lap bit his hopes. Last season, he finished second.
"If we can get some help at the end, I feel really good," Stewart said.
Mike Wallace, Kevin LePage and Martin Truex Jr. all raced their way into the Daytona 500, vying for one of few remaining spots after the top 35 in last season's points were guaranteed spots. But scraping in isn't going to be good enough for these three.
In particular, Truex Jr. and Wallace have had a lot of success at this racetrack. Wallace has consistently taken sub-par equipment and finished in the top 20. Truex Jr. has been a force in the Busch Series, and has had much success at the superspeedways. He finished fourth in Saturday's Busch event.
"Making the race was a real thrill," Wallace said. "But we're here to race. In the draft, if you can get someone to work with you, anything can happen. We're going into this thinking anything is possible."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.