Back to work

Feb 5, 2002 9:17 AM

Few sports fans would ever consider NASCAR Winston Cup drivers and teams as the hardest working group in sports, but it’s hard to say they aren’t.

Of all the major sports, Winston Cup drivers have the least off-season time. Their 2001 season just ended during Thanksgiving. They began the 2002 campaign with testing in early January that continues through the start of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

From now until the middle of November, teams will have only three weekends off, which will probably be spent touting products for their sponsors. So with all weekends accounted for, it’s a fair estimate to say that Winston Cup drivers maybe have two weekends out of the year for themselves.

That kind of real-life vacation time for a sports star is just another example of what endears the average working American to NASCAR.

The first competitive race of the 2002 season begins this Sunday with the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. The Shootout is a 70-lap non-points race. Participants are invited based on two criteria ”” capturing a pole last season or winning a past Bud Shootout race winner.

This season 23 drivers are participating with most of the top entrants in the circuit competing. The biggest names not racing this weekend are Kevin Harvick, Ward Burton, Jeff Burton, and Johnny Benson.

The favorite in the race is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (7-2), who also happens to be the favorite for next week’s Daytona 500. The pre-season testing that Junior has done, along with his impressive showing at Daytona last season, shows that he has every right to be considered the favorite.

The Budweiser Shootout is a 70-lap dash with a required Green Flag pit stop. Junior might have the best car over the long haul, but with only 70 laps, it really is a crap shoot. Over the history of the shootout, the race has been won by the best of the best.

The criteria to get in doesn’t allow for many also-rans to make the field (unlike this year). Since the race started in 1979, only six times has the race been not won by a former Winston Cup champion. Of all those that weren’t champs, they finished either second or third in the standings during their career at some point.

The late great Dale Earnhardt won this race a record six times. The only other multi-winners are Jeff Gordon (4-1 odds), Ken Schrader (40-1), and the late Neil Bonnett with two apiece.

When Tony Stewart (8-1) won this race last season, it was one of the first times where the Shootout winner didn’t have a particularly good pre-season practice session at Daytona. Nobody was really concerned with individual practice times last year because of the Superspeedway aero-package rules that allowed for any car to be competitive.

The two year run of those rules are finished, and all indications from the drivers are that they will be similar to past years with stronger cars running up front in single file. Drivers don’t expect the record-shattering lap leader numbers at Daytona or Talladega from last season to being matched.

Based on the times of the pre-season testing and the history of champions doing well, we’ll go with another champ to win. At the time of print, only Station Casinos and Palms sports books were offering odds to win on this non-points race.

Next week we’ll preview the Daytona 500 and get insight from the top Las Vegas auto racing oddsmakers.

1) #9 Bill Elliott 12-1
2) #1 Kenny Wallace 8-1
3) #24 Jeff Gordon 4-1
4) #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr 7-2
5) #40 Sterling Marlin 8-1