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All Eyes on the Daytona 500

Times Staff Writer

Don’t be surprised to see stock car racing’s top drivers leaning on the wheel -- or on one another -- more than usual as they kick off NASCAR’s season this weekend.

It seems that nearly every driver, except defending Nextel Cup champion Tony Stewart, is in a hurry to settle a score. Not with one another, but with nagging questions about themselves.

All hope to start by winning the Daytona 500 here Feb. 19 at NASCAR’s most hallowed track, and to follow up with a strong showing the next week at California Speedway in Fontana.

For Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears, it’s a matter of putting to rest disappointing 2005 seasons that surprised them more than anyone else.

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For Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Sterling Marlin, veteran NASCAR stars, it’s a matter of putting to rest speculation that their best racing is behind them.

Elliott, a two-time Daytona 500 winner who is now 50 and running a limited schedule, is returning to the Daytona 500 after a two-year absence.

Asked whether he could still win the “Great American Race” at Daytona International Speedway, the Georgian replied, “I feel like I can. I really do.”

Elliott last won the race in 1987. Marlin, who won the race in 1994, then repeated in ’95, said, “If I didn’t think I could do it, I would stay in Tennessee.”

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The Daytona 500 is the culmination of more than a week’s worth of racing at the 2.5-mile track known for its 31-degree banking in the corners.

It starts Saturday night with the Bud Shootout, a non-points, 70-lap sprint among drivers who won pole positions last season.

The lineup for the 21-car shootout includes Stewart in his Joe Gibbs Chevrolet, Dale Jarrett, last year’s Daytona 500 pole winner in his Robert Yates Ford, and Kasey Kahne in his Ray Evernham Dodge.

Elliott also will be in the shootout, by virtue of having won the race in 1987.

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On Sunday, the drivers will qualify for the front row of the Daytona 500, followed by twin 125-mile qualifying heats on Thursday that will determine the rest of the field.

The 48th Daytona 500 has an $18-million purse, its 167,000 grandstand seats are sold out and more than 200,000 spectators overall are expected to attend as 30 million-plus watch on television.

This year also marks the fifth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. A seven-time champion known as “the Intimidator,” Earnhardt had legions of fans and his death sparked a national outpouring of grief.

Several other drivers are expected to be strong contenders this year, for the Daytona 500 and the Nextel Cup.

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They include Chevy driver Johnson, who has twice finished second in the points but has yet to win the title, and Ford driver Greg Biffle, who was runner-up to Stewart last year.

Carl Edwards, Biffle’s Roush Racing teammate who finished third in the series in 2005 after a strong finish, also is considered a contender, despite this being only his second full year in the Nextel Cup series.

Then there’s Kurt Busch, 27, the 2004 Nextel Cup champion whose 2005 season ended dismally after he was cited for reckless driving near Phoenix International Raceway in November. Having already announced a move to Roger Penske’s team, he was benched for the last two races by team owner Jack Roush.

Busch on Wednesday was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service as part of a plea agreement.

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“I’m glad to have that behind me,” he told reporters Thursday.

This year, Busch will drive the No. 2 Dodge that was vacated by the retiring Rusty Wallace.

Yet for all of the prestige of winning the Daytona 500, the victory does not a season make. Just ask Jeff Gordon, another driver eager to make up for last year.

Gordon won last year’s 500 but ultimately finished 11th in points -- thus failing to qualify as one of the 10 drivers in the Chase for the Championship that determines the series champion over the last 10 races.

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“Years like that make you hungrier, make you humble,” Gordon said. “You have no idea how disappointing it was.”

Stewart used five victories and other steady, if at times unspectacular, finishes to win the title. Yet when it comes to the Daytona 500, he said, there is no reason to be cautious.

NASCAR’s Chase format gives drivers “the flexibility to let it all hang out” at the Daytona 500, Stewart said, even if it means taking gambles that -- if they backfire -- could leave him with few points after the first week of the season.

But Martin, who has started 638 Cup races, disagreed.

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“Every race counts” in the points battle, he said. “You don’t ever throw any race out.”


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