DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The winner of Sunday's Daytona 500 will have to share Victory Circle with an intimidating presence.
Dale Earnhardt will be on the minds of many drivers and fans at the track where he was killed in a last-lap crash a year ago. The seven-time Winston Cup champion also has left a legacy of safety measures that have, hopefully, improved safety.
"I think about Dale Earnhardt every time I drive through the tunnel and every time I get in the car here," said three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett. "I'm sure I'll be thinking about him when I get in the car Sunday.
"After that, though, all of us will be focusing on running a race."
Among the dozen or so favorites to win the season-opening event will be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second to teammate Michael Waltrip last February, crossing the finish line only seconds after his father hit the wall and lost his life.
Instead of slowing down the 26-year-old Little E, his father's death made him even more determined to succeed.
Earnhardt Jr. kept racing and came back to Daytona in July, running away with the Pepsi 400 on the 2 1/2-mile oval that his father loved so much.
Still, it was a victory in the Daytona 500 that his father coveted more than any other. It took him 20 years to get one. This will be Junior's third try and he hasn't finished worse than fourth.
But, as much as winning this race, Earnhardt Jr. wants to earn the kind of respect his father enjoyed.
"When he won the 500 here in '98, the respect he got from all the teams was amazing," Junior said. "They wanted to beat him and they worked against him and they raced against him and then when he wins that race they all go out and congratulate him, and that's never happened before and might not ever happen again. That was probably the coolest."
Although "The Intimidator" will certainly be remembered Sunday, there are other, more current dynamics affecting this race.
Rules changes have raised questions about what kind of competition the crowd of about 190,000 at Daytona International Speedway and a huge television audience will see in the 500-mile race.
As retired seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty said earlier this week: "NASCAR is all about controversy."
The latest brouhaha is over aerodynamic changes, with the Fords and Dodges getting a break after the Chevrolet and Pontiac teams dominated the preliminary events.
Since winter testing ended in January, the Ford Tauruses have been granted three quarter-inch reductions of their rear spoiler, while the almost identical Dodge Intrepids finally got a quarter-inch reduction on Friday after considerable complaining about a disadvantage.
"I don't think there's any favorite, really," said Jeff Gordon, the four-time and defending Winston Cup champion who drives a Chevy. "I see Fords, Pontiacs, Dodges and Chevys out there battling and passing and leading and I think it will be a great race."
Not everybody agrees, though.
"If you're a race fan coming to Daytona, save your money, go to Rockingham," said Ford driver Ricky Rudd, referring to next Sunday's race in North Carolina where aerodynamic rules make far less difference.
NASCAR seems to be in a Catch 22, trying to adjust the rules to even up competition while trying to make all the teams happy.
Two years ago, the 500 was a bore, with little passing and virtually no excitement. To remedy that, rule changes were made at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's two longest and fastest ovals.
Three- and four-wide racing became the rule, with passing throughout the field on virtually every lap. Drivers could go from 18th to first and from first to 18th in one lap.
Now, NASCAR has returned to rules closely resembling those of 2000. Will that make it be another sleep-inducing event?
"Sunday's race won't be like last year's," Gordon said. "There won't be as many lead changes, but it's still going to be exciting. There will be a lot of racing and side-by-side action. I don't think it will be boring like 2000 was."
The early laps could certainly be fun, with two first-time Daytona 500 starters -- pole-winning rookie Jimmie Johnson and last year's top rookie, Kevin Harvick -- leading the 43-car field to the green flag.
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Gordon and Waltrip, the winners of Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, will be right behind, trailed closely by Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart, who already has won a pair of preliminary events and finished second in another during the past week.
"Could be one heck of a wreck," Johnson joked after winning the pole for only his fourth Winston Cup start.
Gordon, who co-owns Johnson's car, isn't concerned, though.
"Jimmie and Kevin will do a good job," he said. "If they can't stay up front, they'll get back in line and try to stay with the lead pack like everybody else."
The lineup also includes two other rookies, Ryan Newman, who is expected to vie with Johnson for Rookie of the Year honors, and Shawna Robinson, only the second woman ever to race in the 500. Janet Guthrie raced here in 1977 and 1980.
"I'm very focused on what I'm here to do," said Robinson, who made it into her second Winston Cup race despite crashing in her qualifying race.
While the rookies are just getting started on their careers, Sunday's race will be the finale for 60-year-old Dave Marcis, appearing in this event for a record 33rd time and making his 882nd career start.
"I don't really want to retire," said Marcis, who has five career wins but none since 1982. "But people keep telling me I should. Maybe if I win Sunday, they'll change their minds."
With all the story lines in this race, though, the legacy of Dale Earnhardt remains the biggest.
Although NASCAR was already working on safety changes in the wake of the deaths in 2000 of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper, the process was accelerated greatly after Earnhardt's death.
Among the changes going into Sunday's race, all 43 starters are required to wear head and neck restraints, the cars will all be carrying black box data recorders and all crewmen and officials who venture over the pit wall will have to wear helmets and fireproof uniforms.
Earnhardt's legend will also be riding with the competitors on the racetrack.
Stewart, a former short track and open-wheel star who has emerged as a top contender in stock cars, said Earnhardt is the reason he is now a factor in racing at Daytona.
"I'm finally starting to learn all those lessons Dale Earnhardt was teaching us," Stewart said. "He was teaching us by beating us. Now we're able to apply those lessons."
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