DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., Feb. 15 (UPI) -- The Daytona 500, always the biggest day of the year in stock car racing but now one of the biggest sporting events in the entire country, will be held for the 45th time Sunday with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the decided favorite.
Being the favorite at Daytona, however, usually means little because of the myriad of things that can go wrong during the 500 miles of racing.
It will be a day of nose-to-bumper, side-by-side racing brought about by the restrictor plates in all cars.
"You're in the car surrounded by other cars in front of you, beside you and behind you," said former winner Darrell Waltrip said. "From inside the car, it may look serene on TV, but boy, there's a real thunderstorm out there with all the air turbulence from the draft."
Understanding "the draft" is often the key to victory in the Daytona 500. Former driver and team owner Junior Johnson is credited with discovering the draft when he won the 1960 Daytona 500 in a car that was not the fastest on the track.
Johnson found that if he tucked his slower car directly in the air flow of a faster car in front of him, the vacuum effect would pull Johnson's car faster than if he was running by itself.
In today's era, the draft plays a key role in determining the outcome at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, where restrictor plates are mandatory.
However, trying to team up and draft past Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this week has proved to be futile, which makes the son of the 1998 Daytona 500 winner a major threat.
Earnhardt won last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, nearly took the pole for the Daytona 500 on Monday, captured the second Twin 125 qualifying race on Thursday and claimed Saturday's Busch Koolerz 300.
Earnhardt is trying to become the first driver to win the Budweiser Shootout, a Twin 125, the Busch race and the Daytona 500 in the same year.
NASCAR officials attempted to even the playing field this season with "aero matching" by making all four cars in the series -- Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac -- fit common templates, which measure the positioning of the bodies when the car rolls through inspection.
NASCAR may have made the cars more equal throughout the field, but up front it has been all Chevrolets. The dominant teams all week have been Dale Earnhardt, Inc., led by Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip; and Childress Racing's Green, Gordon and Kevin Harvick.
"I've got a good car," Earnhardt said in the understatement of the week. "I just need to stay out of trouble and there's nothing else to it. Those other guys are going to race their race and I'm going to race my race and hopefully we'll end up in victory lane. We're going to do everything we can."
Getting a win in the Daytona 500 does not equate to success for the rest of the year. Only once since 1977 has the winner of the race gone on to claim the year-long championship.
One central theme that has come out of this year's SpeedWeeks is the lack of passing due to the aerodynamic rules. So far, the racing has been better off Interstate 95, which is about one mile to the west of Daytona International Speedway.
Thursday's first 125-mile qualifier was won by Gordon, who made the winning pass on pit road when his teammate was boxed into his pit for just one second. It was enough for Gordon to get back on the track first and take the lead for good.
"When you have good engines and you have good cars -- you usually have pretty good success," said Doug Duchardt, NASCAR Group Manager of GM Racing. "But, the thing that you always have to watch is that when you get in the race, funny things can happen."
That was never more evident than last year. Superstar Jeff Gordon looked like he was going to win his third Daytona 500 but spun out late in the race when he cut down too quickly on Sterling Marlin during a restart.
When the race was red-flagged to set up a high-speed finish after a late caution, Marlin climbed out of his Dodge Intrepid to pull a crumpled fender away from his right front tire. Working on a car during a red flag is against the rules, and Marlin was penalized.
Even Earnhardt's chances at winning are not a sure thing, despite his restrictor-plate dominance and the fact his DEI team has won three of the last four Winston Cup events at Daytona.
In an effort to break up the large pack of cars that typify restrictor-plate racing, the cars again will use a fuel cell half the size of those used in other races. That means twice as many pit stops, which could create spacing on the track and definitely will put greater emphasis on the pit crew.
"I think the small fuel cell is going to have a definite role in this race," said Ford driver Jeff Burton. "Originally, we all thought we were going to pit more and handling wouldn't be as important. The problem with that is even though you're going to pit more, you're only going to be putting two tires on. As a result, you're going to end up with more laps on tires than what we're used to having here."