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Daytona no track to success

Feb 11, 2003 4:16 AM

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA - The 2003 Winston Cup season starts its engine this Sunday with NASCAR’s biggest event, the Daytona 500.

A win in this race doesn’t necessarily mean success for the remainder of the year, but it does mean reaching the pinnacle in a career. The goal of nearly every aspiring driver is first to race in the 500 and then win it. Has anyone ever heard a young driver say, "I want to win the Championship?"

Perfect examples of solidifying dreams and receiving respect from fans and peers alike came in the last two Daytona 500’s. Michael Waltrip, at 25-1, had never won a race in a career that spanned 15 years. Waltrip won at Daytona, finished 24th in points for the season, yet still swaggered.

Ward Burton, at 22-1, won last season’s Daytona 500, yet finished 25th in points. In both instances, the achievement in the Great American Race will always overshadow anything else they do, good or bad.

Las Vegas sports books are gearing up for the new February wagering frenzy that continues to grow yearly. Nearly every book you go to has a differing opinion on every driver, which is ideal for the bettor. Odds to win, matchups and propositions have become readily available at all books.

Excalibur/Mandalay Group properties will be offering a parlay card weekly beginning with the 500. Excalbur’s Kevin Klein says it’s the perfect time to debut the card,

"We’ll do more wagering in these next four weeks with Daytona and the Vegas race than any three-race period all season," Klein said. "Just like football, the card will appeal to the fan who isn’t crazy about wagering. It’s so simple and easy to do, that $5 here or there for the idea of hitting a 350-1, eight-team parlay hopefully will entice them."

Despite being the dominant figures on Superspeedways, Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1) and Waltrip (8-1) were not selected by any of the bookies. The consensus from nearly all of them was that they are far and away the drivers to beat this Sunday.

"It would be too easy to select them", says the Palms’ Fred Crespi. "I’d feel like I was copping out."

Another driver not many people are talking about is Rusty Wallace (15-1). The veteran driver usually gets all sorts of attention when the circuit hits one of the short tracks or maybe a road course. Daytona, a 2½-mile Superspeedway, is where Wallace has had the most horrific crashes of his career.

Without much fanfare, Wallace has enjoyed more consistent success at Daytona over the last 10 races than any driver on the circuit. During that period, Wallace has six top-5 finishes and two in the top 10. That averages out to sixth place per race, considerably better than Wallace’s first 29 starts at Daytona where he managed only two top 5 finishes.

When looking at all Daytona events (Bud Shootouts, Twin 125 qualifiers, 500’s, and Firecracker 400’s) that he’s been part, Wallace has managed only a win in the ”˜98 Bud Shootout. Only 3 active drivers have more experience on the track without an official points win -- Ricky Rudd (35-1), Mark Martin (25-1), and Kyle Petty (75-1).

Two of NASCAR’s biggest stars, Darrell Waltrip and the late Dale Earnhardt, had to wait almost as long as Wallace before finally winning the 500. Following the January Daytona test session, there was uncertainty going in because of the manufacturer change from Ford to Dodge. However, Wallace and the Penske team are pretty excited about their chances.

"We were super strong right out of the box with the new Dodge and I think we can grab the momentum we’ve built at Daytona in recent years and run with it," Wallace said. "In the pre-season testing, we were pretty good in qualifying trim, but were really good in what little drafting we were able to do. We turned in something like the second-fastest lap, for what that’s worth. Anyhow, the handling was there and we’re tweaking all we can as far as the horsepower goes.

"To tell you the truth," Wallace continued, "With all the stuff we have going on, I’d say me and my team are primed to win this thing."

Talk like that could surely justify any wager on Wallace. As a topper, Miller Lite will be giving away a six pack of beer to everyone in attendance at Daytona should Wallace win.

Longshots to watch this week include Jeremy Mayfield (45-1), Mike Wallace (60-1), and Mike Skinner (50-1) -- the top performers from last month’s Daytona testing. Wallace is in Geoff Bodine’s No. 9 car that Bodine drove to third and 10th place finishes last season at Daytona.

Skinner is driving the famed No. 4 Kodak car that has won the Daytona 500 three times.