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At last, 500

Feb 12, 2002 8:40 AM

Gentlemen, start your engines.

It’s time for the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup season and, unlike the other sports, it begins with biggest event, the Daytona 500.

That makes sense because the luster of finishing off the season with the biggest event like the Super Bowl wouldn’t have the same appeal to all the drivers. Starting the season with the grandest showcase gives every Winston Cup team hope and an equal opportunity to break out and be recognized.

The dream of every driver is to win the Daytona 500. That’s why every sponsor and team pours millions of dollars in trying to succeed in NASCAR.

We will attempt to give a little insight on whose dream may become reality when this Sunday’s race is over along with the odds and what to expect this Sunday.

The NASCAR world got a preview last Sunday during the Bud Shootout as to what effects the new aero-package rules would have in actual racing conditions. The crazy passing witnessed the past few years at superspeedway tracks are a thing of the past.

It appears to be more similar to how things were prior to the extreme aero-package change where the top cars and teams bully their way with their well-financed machines.

Daytona 500 favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7-2) gave some insight on the new package following Sunday’s Bud’s Shootout.

“I think the race was over with about five laps to go,” Junior said. “With this aero package, you can actually trail brake (which means) using a little bit of brake to slow your car down where it gets the guy behind you right up behind you.

“That way, the leader loses all his steam without you pushing him,” Earnhardt continued. “You get a run on him and you’re 5-mph faster than him, and you can make the pass.”

Based on Junior’s analysis, you can bet that there are several other drivers taking note of what the new master of the draft said. (Junior’s father would have never revealed that much information to anyone.) There are sure to be several packs of cars teaming with each other and the planned winning move by several cars will occur much earlier than the normal last lap, now probably around 10 to go.

The aggressive action by several cars that early is sure to lead to a massive wreck, which leads to another bunched up frantic finish. All this should lead to a very exciting conclusion.

Station Casinos Sports Books has a manufacturer prop putting GM against the combined efforts of Ford and Dodge. GM is a —130 favorite. Past trends show that Chevrolet (GM) has won 10 of the last 13 Daytona 500s and nine of the past 14 races held at Daytona. Ford has won all the other races during that span. The last Dodge (1977) or Pontiac (1984) to win at Daytona was driven by Richard Petty, each time in the fall race. The last Dodge to win the Daytona 500 was also driven by Petty in 1973 and 1974.

Every Nevada sports book will have odds posted with several match-ups and props to choose from. We took a poll from the Las Vegas experts and asked for their insight on who they liked to take the checkered flag.

Kelly Airgood (Boulder Station): “Tony Stewart (6-1) has shown with the last two Bud Shootout wins that he is adapting nicely to the Superspeedways. Look for him to get his first official win there this week.”

Casey Lewless (Circus Circus): “It’s Tony Stewart’s turn, like what I saw at the Shootout.”

Kelly Downey (Green Valley Ranch): “I’ll go out on a limb at take Jeff Gordon (5-1). He’s been impressive in all test sessions and he’s a two-time Daytona 500 champ.”

Kim Crawford: (Fiesta-Henderson): “Kevin Harvick (15-1) is an up and comer and his team knows how to set things up at Daytona.”

Kevin Klein (Excalibur): “Sterling Marlin (8-1) has the best Dodge and I still believe he had the best car there in both Daytona races last year. Marlin has looked great so far in testing.”

Marcus Hurd (Palms): “Dale Earnhardt Jr. (4-1) has shown to be the best at recent restrictor plate races and has the respect of all the drivers like his father had which means they’ll follow him when he makes a move. That kind of respect, teamwork, and driving for DEI will keep him near the lead all day.”

Hugh Citron (Mandalay Bay): “Jeff Gordon has once again grabbed his rightful crown as King of NASCAR. Just like he did in winning the title in ’98, he’ll follow it up by winning Daytona the very next season.”

Bert Cirincione (Fiesta-Rancho): “Gordon is the king of the (Daytona) Beach. He’s a two-time winner of the 500 with four overall at Daytona. The problems are over for him, he has his title again, and sights are set on Daytona ... Look out.”

Jay Kornegay (Imperial Palace): “Junior will be in fine form as he’s shown for the last six restrictor plate races. If he can do better on the short tracks, he may even contend for a title.”

The consensus choice is Gordon with Stewart and Junior close for second. It’s very hard to disagree with those picks, especially after witnessing the trio finish in the top three during the shootout.

There is little doubt that barring mechanical failure, they will be in the lead pack near the end maneuvering for the win. All three are from the top teams of NASCAR and all have financing to go through every test necessary to get them into a winning position.

When reflecting on the 27-year Dodge drought at the Daytona 500, two drivers come to mind as candidates to reign. Ward Burton (12-1) and Sterling Marlin (8-1) have been steady in all practice sessions with Burton being the faster of the two.

Marlin has an edge because of his expertise at the season opener, which he won in ’94 and ’95.

Longshots include last year’s champ Michael Waltrip (20-1), Terry Labonte (35-1), Ken Schrader (45-1), and Jeff Gordon’s prized pupil Jimmie Johnson (35-1), the rookie sitting on the pole.

DAYTONA 500 PREDICTION 1) #40 Sterling Marlin 8-1 2) #24 Jeff Gordon 5-1 3) #8 Dale Earnhardt Jr 4-1 4) #22 Ward Burton 12-1 5) #18 Bobby Labonte 7-1