Bruce Martin
Sunday February 17th, 2008

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 has grown dramatically since its first race in 1959, when drivers such as the legendary Junior Johnson drove into the track for the first time and simply couldn't believe its massive size.

"It was an awesome feeling when you come through that tunnel and look at this thing," said Johnson, a former moonshine runner who would become one of NASCAR's greatest legends. "It was hard to believe that you could build a car that would run all day long around this thing wide open.

"I don't think there was a soul that came through that gate that didn't just almost stop and say, `Man, what am I doing here?'"

Johnson competed in that first Daytona 500, a race won by Lee Petty in a photo finish with Johnny Beauchamp. The following year, Johnson took the checkered flag, and still feels it is his greatest accomplishment in racing.

"If you ride around this thing and are leading the race, it's one of the most awesome feelings you'll ever have," Johnson said. "When the checkered flag falls on you, you know you've done everything you can do in racing and you've accomplished something that you will have for a lifetime.

"You can win championships and all that kind of stuff, but nothing can compare to having that checkered flag drop on you at this place."

Forty-three drivers await that feeling at NASCAR's premier event. Here are five questions to ponder as the Sprint Cup series kicks off.

How will the new car perform in its first Daytona 500?

First off, let's stop referring to it as the "Car of Tomorrow" because tomorrow came last March at Bristol Motor Speedway when Kyle Busch drove this creation to victory and then referred to it as a "milk crate."

It might be ugly, it doesn't drive as well as the previous version of race car, but it has achieved some of the goals NASCAR intended when it was created. The car has improved driver safety, lowered costs and put some of the racing back in the hands of the driver.

That has been evident all week as drivers have been able to find ways to get from the back to the front. Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved that in Thursday's first Gatorade Duel when he was one of seven drivers forced to start at the back of field. He took the lead after 18 laps.

The older car was sleeker and easier to drive but was also aero dependent.

"It's going to be a huge difference," said Tony Stewart after winning Saturday's Nationwide Series race with the older car. "When I got in the Nationwide Series car, it was like putting on a new pair of shoes. But the Cup cars were designed to not drive as well as the cars we were driving today. They got that wish for sure.

"It will definitely be a driver's race tomorrow and who can hang onto their car when it's not right."

This car has also brought back the fabled "slingshot pass" which has been missing in recent years as cars cut through the air. The new car is taller and a bit wider so it punches a bigger hole in the air. If a car running second is able to pull out from behind the lead car at the precise moment, it will slow down the leader car and allow the trailer car to "slingshot" past it for the lead.

A big key will be the team that manages its tires the best because tire-wear has been a major concern this week. Many drivers fear the tires will wear out before the fuel tank is dry. That could force some to have to make unscheduled pit stops.

And instead of seeing one large pack of cars, expect to see the field spread out during portions of the race.

Could the Great American Race be won by a Japanese manufacturer?

With Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin driving Toyota Camrys for Joe Gibbs Racing, this could be the first time that a car without an American heritage wins what is billed as "The Great American Race."

Hamlin drove a Toyota to victory in Thursday's second Gatorade Daytona Duel for its first win in a Cup race.

Toyota Racing Development (TRD) has done an impressive job improving its product after a miserable initial Cup season last year. Sunday could be Toyota's coming of age in American racing if any of the three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, or another driver such as Michael Waltrip, ends up in victory lane.

Who will be the highest finishing former Indy 500 winner?

With three former Indianapolis 500 winners, it would be easy to pick 2000 Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya as the highest finisher in this group. But the 2006 Indy winner and three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. will be the best out of this group at the end of the race.

Hornish was impressive in his Daytona Duel on Thursday with a ninth-place finish. Although he got off to a slow start in his NASCAR races in 2007, he is a true racer who has focused on learning the uniquely different craft of stock car racing.

"It's a big relief," Hornish said after his qualifying race. "I'm real happy with the way that worked out. We've definitely bumped ourselves up quite a bit as far as where we're going to start. I was real happy with that."

Dario Franchitti is the other former Indy winner in this group but is still taking his crash course in Cup racing.

There could have been four former Indy 500 winners but Jacques Villeneuve crashed in his qualifying race and missed the field. Without sponsorship for any additional races this season, Villeneuve's stock car has been parked until further notice.

Could this be another Junior achievement?

It didn't take Earnhardt Jr. long to prove he made the right decision leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. to join Hendrick Motorsports. He is 2-for-2 in Cup events at Daytona this week after winning the Budweiser Shootout and the first Gatorade Duel at Daytona on Thursday.

He established himself as the favorite and has already taken the attention away from his more successful teammates, such as two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time Cup titlist Jeff Gordon.

"I feel like we've got a shot," Earnhardt said. "Nobody is boastful enough to come in here and claim that. I wouldn't expect anybody to do that but I thought we had a great shot Thursday. We've won some races down here so we have to be in that group.

"We got to remember we're at Daytona, too. We've had a lot of wins here. We can't really sing a lot of praise just yet because we've got a lot of racing left to do. We should be fine."

If Tony Stewart wins his first Daytona 500, will he finally get a haircut?

There's been as much attention to Stewart's long hair, which is starting to look like the infamous "mullet," as to his actual performance on the race track.

Stewart is the best driver in Sprint Cup racing who hasn't won the Daytona 500 and he made a promise to the media after he won Saturday's Nationwide Series race that his lengthy locks would be trimmed if he ends up in victory lane on Sunday.

"I'll let each of you take a shot at me with the scissors and cut my hair tomorrow if I win this thing," Stewart promised. "That's my gift to you guys."

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