Bruce Martin
Wednesday February 10th, 2010

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- With so many new storylines, including NASCAR eliminating the bump-drafting rule and allowing the drivers to self-police, there is the potential for an even wilder and more frantic Daytona 500 on Sunday. Here's a guide to the first and biggest race of the Sprint Cup season, which, with its 1 p.m. start, will be the earliest for a Daytona 500 since 2003.

1. The return to a daytime event will change the nature of the race. It's just like the good old days at the Daytona 500 as it will start and finish in daylight. That's just what "Big Bill" France intended when he staged the first edition of the race in 1959. It remained a daylight race until 2004, when television partners lobbied for a later start to end the 500 under the lights. By doing so, the track conditions changed dramatically and the race became more of a contest of pit crews keeping up with the track than drivers racing against each other. Now track conditions will remain fairly constant throughout the race.

2. The increased speed that larger restrictor plates will give the drivers. The 63/64ths-inch plate -- the largest since the 1989 Daytona 500 -- made a difference in last week's qualifications as 40 cars went faster than last year's pole speed. Officials hope the larger plate and some aerodynamic changes to the cars will give drivers more throttle response. That'll be important because drivers will have a little more horsepower to avoid danger and pass slower cars, although the draft remains important to the nature of this race.

3. Bump drafting is now allowed. After restricting bump drafting, including last fall's mandate at Talladega that there be "daylight between the bumpers" when the cars were in the massive turns, NASCAR has put things back in the driver's hands. That means bump drafting could lead to some wild moments. (Bump drafting is when a car deliberately runs into the back of the one it is closely following in order to move it ahead and help the line of cars get past those that are alongside.) Drivers need to be careful that bump drafting doesn't turn into slam-drafting.

4. The possible return to prominence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. After falling off the map last year with a 25th-place finish, he starts on the outside of the front row alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin. The two have shared information as team owner Rick Hendrick has merged the 5 (Martin) and 88 (Earnhardt) cars into one "team" concept. The combination had an immediate impact in qualifications, but will it carry over to the race? Junior Nation certainly hopes so.

5. Somewhere in the race, a darkhorse will emerge. Invariably, a driver who doesn't typically run up front will end up in the mix. In 2000, Johnny Benson led until he was passed by eventual winner Dale Jarrett with four laps to go. In 2001, it was race winner Michael Waltrip. Last year, it was third-place finisher A.J. Allmendinger. In restrictor-plate racing, hanging onto the draft can be a tremendous equalizer. Keep an eye on some of the names not often in the top 10. One's bound to be this year's darkhorse on Sunday.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. A victory would be huge for the sport and serve as a tremendous boost for the driver who has just one win since May 2006. He has entered the season full of self-confidence rather than self-doubt, and if he can avoid making a mistake -- like missing his pit box, as he did in last year's Daytona 500 -- there's no reason why he shouldn't be considered one of the favorites this year.

2. Jeff Gordon. Always a threat, Gordon is a three-time winner of NASCAR's biggest race and a six-time Cup race winner at Daytona. His other three victories came in the 400-mile race held each July. Gordon has just one top-five finish in his last eight Daytona races, but understands what it takes to win the 500 as well as any other driver in the field.

3. Tony Stewart. This is the one gem missing from his racing crown -- well, that and an Indianapolis 500 victory that he admits will probably never happen because of his focus on being a NASCAR owner/driver. Stewart has three Cup victories at Daytona -- all in the July race. He's had his chances in the 500, including some dominant runs. He remains determined to win and this could be the year.

4. Mark Martin. Starting on the pole qualifies him as a favorite. But the 51-year-old driver has never won a Cup race at Daytona, although some people contend that he should have in 2007 when NASCAR left the green light on rather than throwing a yellow flag with a massive number of cars crashing behind the leaders. That allowed Kevin Harvick enough time to nudge past Martin at the checkered flag.

5. Kyle Busch. Although he missed The Chase in 2009, Busch remains one of the best talents in the sport. A victory would elevate his status even further. He has the car, the team and the ability to win on Sunday.

1. Jamie McMurray. The three-time Cup race winner has been reunited with team owner Chip Ganassi. McMurray was impressive during his return in last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout and could be running at the front on Sunday.

2. Martin Truex Jr. McMurray's seat at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing became available when Truex announced last season that he would join Michael Waltrip Racing. Truex gets the NAPA sponsorship at MWR, which was previously used by the team's owner/driver Michael Waltrip.

3. Bobby Labonte. The 2000 NASCAR Cup champion has moved over to TRG this season after running a limited number of races for that team last year. He began 2009 driving for Hall of Fame Racing, which does not have an entry in the sport this year.

4. Travis Kvapil. The journeyman has landed at Front Row Motorsports, which is using the 2009 points from Yates Racing.

5. David Gilliland. He will run 32 races for Front Row, but will drive in the Daytona 500 for BAM Racing.

1. Scott Speed. With his "Generation X" lifestyle, he sometimes rubs folks on the race track the wrong way. He has obvious talent, evidenced by his impressive transition from Formula 1 to NASCAR, but he also gets involved in too many crashes. One thing about Speed, he isn't afraid to offer an opinion, no matter who it rankles.

2. Brad Keselowski. As the focal point in both end-of-the-race crashes at Talladega in 2009, Keselowski is now at Penske Racing and may be on his best behavior Sunday. His feud with Denny Hamlin at the end of last season is legendary, and although there is no reason to expect it to spill over into Daytona, Keselowski is highly aggressive, which often leads to some of his crashes.

3. Sam Hornish, Jr. Sorry, Sam. Although Hornish remains one of the greatest IndyCar drivers of his generation, his switch to NASCAR has not gone as planned. He has, somehow, made an enemy of Jimmie Johnson, who continues to pick on Sam like he's the new kid in the Junior High cafeteria.

4. Elliott Sadler. Nothing wrong with him, except that he has the potential to find a crash. In the close-quarters racing on Sunday, he's bound to do it again.

5. A.J. Allmendinger. Another driver who hits the wall too often, but he did prove last year that he is capable of a top-five finish.

1. John Andretti. Racing for a low-budget team may mean a short day for the versatile driver.

2. Joe Nemechek. Already in the race because he was third-fastest on time, he's another driver in the "go or go home" category.

3. Robert Richardson. He has made the race based on the owner points for the No. 38 team that was driven last year by David Gilliland. Expect Richardson to start and park so the team can collect a big check just by making an appearance in the race.

4. Paul Menard. Guaranteed a spot, but expect him to get swallowed up in a crash or mechanical failure.

5. Robby Gordon. Another driver who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a crash happens.

1. No bump drafting rules. Expect this to be the topic of many stories and the announcers on FOX will discuss in at length during the telecast on Sunday. It will be mentioned early and often because not only will it have a role in who gets to the front, it'll be the reason for the big crashes that are likely to occur.

2. Have at it, boys. That's NASCAR's attitude this year in allowing the drivers to police themselves. It's a return to the old days of racing, when drivers settled the score with their rivals one way or another. So, don't be surprised if a driver gets put into the wall or hot tempers spill over after the race.

3. Danica Patrick. She's not even in the Daytona 500, but that doesn't mean her shadow won't be cast over the event. In the days leading up to the race, Patrick has dominated the storylines for both the ARCA and NASCAR Nationwide Series races as she began her transition to stock cars.

4. Jimmie Johnson going for his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title. The Daytona 500 is about the only race of the season where the word "Chase" is not used. But even though the end of the 2010 season is still 10 months away, the possibility of his fifth-straight cup title will definitely be mentioned -- a lot.

5. Digger. FOX's cartoon character is loved by kids, but loathed by NASCAR purists. I don't have a problem with Digger because in a lot of ways NASCAR is a real-life cartoon. But when Digger sells more souvenirs than all but a few of the top drivers, that's an indication that the focus is getting away from racing.

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