NASCAR is the only major sport that begins each year with its equivalent of the Super Bowl.
Most of the drivers understand that the season-opening Daytona 500 is only the first of 34 races on a grueling 10-month schedule. But, with all the hype, sometimes it's hard to keep things in perspective.
''You're down here for a week and a half, with all the emphasis, all the media hype and all the effort that the team has put into qualifying,'' said Ward Burton. ''It's all really important and it's easy to get disappointed and grumble a little bit.
''It is a very important event, but the main thing is that you keep it in perspective that it is one event.''
By MIKE HARRIS
AP Motorsports Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's not much question which of the 80 entries in the Rolex 24 was favored heading into the twice-around-the-clock event.
Starting from the pole after a convincing victory last year, the Dyson Racing Riley & Scott is the car most people expect to be out front when the checkered flag waves at 1 p.m. EST on Sunday.
''I guess we're the favorite based on history,'' said Elliott Forbes-Robinson, part of the winning Dyson team a year ago.
Forbes-Robinson, a two-time winner at Daytona International Speedway, will share the driving of the Ford-powered SportsRacer division entry with former race winner James Weaver of England, CART star Max Papis and team owner Rob Dyson, who also was part of the winning team last year.
In 1999, a second team car finished 22nd for Dyson, who also won in 1997.
The big difference this time around is that Dyson has entered only one car.
''The package is still competitive,'' Dyson said. ''However, it still comes down to a lot of attention to detail, good driving, good mechanical preparation and a lot of luck.''
So far, so good.
Weaver drove the Dyson car to the pole position on the 80-car grid Thursday on the 3.56-mile, nine-turn road circuit, which includes three turns and about 70 percent of the 2 1/2-mile stock car oval.
''The car's running so well -- a lot better than I thought it was going to run when I came here -- and everybody seems to be really happy with driving it,'' Forbes-Robinson said. ''Now, what we've got to do is go out and make her finish.
''We've got to stay out of trouble and keep people from hitting us, and generally go easy on the car. When I came here with Dyson (in 1997), the team's No. 1 car had a problem and the car that was actually running slower won the race.
''Last year,'' Forbes-Robinson added, ''we just ran fourth and fifth. We kept running the same speed and, by the end of the race, we were there and won.''
Although this is the 38th edition of the Daytona race -- the 33rd 24-hour version -- it is the debut of the Grand American Road Racing Association.
The GrandAm has reorganized the series, with five divisions, including the top SportsRacer class, GT, GTO, GTU and American GT. All will be involved in this weekend's race.
Roger Edmondson, president of the new sanctioning body, was thrilled by the more than 100 entries and the enthusiasm that greeted GrandAm.
''Our job is to create an environment which will allow sports car racing to flourish in North America,'' he said.
Among the entries standing in the way of a Dyson repeat are two new Cadillac Northstar LMP's, bringing General Motors' Luxury division back into racing for the first time in 50 years.
The new cars proved they are fast, qualifying fifth and eighth. Now the question is will they last?
Butch Leitzinger, a three-time Daytona winner who was part of the winning team last year, is one of the drivers of the slower of the two Cadillacs.
''We're going to undoubtedly come up with some problems along the way, but the goal is to get a lot of data and finish the race,'' he said. ''We'd like to be facing this more aggressively, but the program came together kind of late and we haven't had as much testing as we'd want.''
More likely contenders for the overall victory were the three Ferrari 333SPs in the SportsRacer class.
Alex Caffi, a former Formula One racer, put one of the Italian sports cars on the outside of the front row.
''We didn't think it was fast enough to be on the front row, but the Ferrari is always a good car at Daytona,'' Caffi said. ''I think we have a good chance to win on Sunday because the car is reliable and, now, it is fast enough.''
The Ferrari that has started second each of the last three years after winning the pole in 1996 will start this race in sixth, while the other Ferrari is 14th on the grid.
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