Friday February 18th, 2011

DAYTONA, Fla. -- He pulled himself out of his black-and-red No. 29 Chevy and immediately gazed at his car like it was his most treasured possession. Kevin Harvick had just finished third in his qualifying race on Thursday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, but he couldn't have been much happier. "I feel really, really good about this car," Harvick said as he walked off pit road and into the garage. "We led a bunch of laps today [20 of 62] and stayed in the lead pack. It's winning the big race that matters. And all in all, I really like our chances in the Daytona 500."

So do I. Harvick, who scored more points last year than any other driver over the course of the 36-race season but finished third in the Chase behind Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, is clearly established as the top restrictor plate driver in NASCAR today. (Carburetor restrictor plates are used at Daytona and Talladega -- the two biggest tracks on the NASCAR schedule -- to reduce airflow to the engine, thus limiting horsepower and reducing speed.) He won two of the four plate races last season and he took the checkered flag in the 2007 Great American Race. It says here he wins it again on Sunday.

"I feel like I've really grown and matured as a restrictor plate racer," Harvick told me last month over lunch in Charlotte. "It's something that takes time to learn. But I've got confidence now that I can win every time we go to a plate track. And it's almost been important at RCR [Richard Childress Racing] to run well on the plate tracks. It's a priority for Richard."

Sunday's 500 will be unlike any other in the event's history. The day after the Pepsi 400 last July at Daytona, a team of workers began tearing up and repaving the 2.5-mile oval. Five months and $20 million later, the repave was complete. Daytona is now the smoothest track on the Sprint Cup circuit and drivers no longer have to lift off the throttle as they charge through the turns at about 200 mph.

This has changed the dynamic of the racing. In the past, a string of cars would typically draft off each other in two lines around the track. But now, because the track has so much "grip"-- meaning the tires on the cars don't slip at all through the turns -- drivers are picking one drafting partner and staying with that partner all the way around the track. They couldn't do this in years past because the surface was so bumpy in the turns that drafting with one partner would lead to a wreck. The end result of the repave? Sunday's race will be a three-hour pair's dance, as two-car drafts will be the norm, not the exception. Says Kurt Busch, "It's a new era at Daytona."

Yes it is -- one that will be ushered with a win by Kevin Harvick. If that happens, it will indeed be memorable. Harvick, after all, will be driving the car once piloted by the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died on the last lap of this race 10 years ago.

Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies on Sunday for the 53rd running of the Daytona 500:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior has had a rough Speedweeks. He wrecked in the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday night and he wrecked again in practice on Wednesday, forcing him to use his backup car for the 500. Though he won the pole, Junior will have to start from the rear of the field because he's switching cars.

What does he think of the new style of racing at Daytona? Not much. After he finished 13th in his qualifying race on Thursday, he was visibly frustrated, saying, "We've got our homework to do." Still, Daytona is one of Earnhardt's best tracks on the circuit and, a year after finishing 21st in the points, he knows it's imperative to start this season fast. If he could win on Sunday at the place where his father perished a decade ago, it would go down as one of the greatest stories in the history of the sport.

2. Kurt Busch. No driver has ever won the Budweiser Shootout, won his qualifying race and won the Daytona 500 in the same year. But Busch has a chance after taking the checkered flag twice during Speedweeks. Why has he been so good? During testing at Daytona during the winter, Busch and his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski spent more time working on the two-car drafting technique than any other duo. Clearly, that practice has paid off.

3. Carl Edwards. Edwards won the final two events of the 2010 season and he was impressive in his qualifying race on Thursday, consistently running in the front before fading late and finishing 10th. Roush-Fenway Racing typically struggles at Daytona -- owner Jack Roush, who has been in the sport since 1988, has only won one Daytona 500, in 2009 with driver Matt Kenseth -- but I think Edwards could be a surprise victor on Sunday. I've been watching him closely this week and he appears to be as comfortable in this new way of drafting as anyone.

4. Jeff Gordon. Sunday's race will be Gordon's first with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, who was with Mark Martin last season. Both Gordon and Gustafson have stout histories at Daytona: Gordon is a three-time 500 winner (1997, '99, '05); Gustafson guided Mark Martin to a second-place finish in the 2009 Daytona 500 and the pole in last year's race.

On Sunday Gordon will start on the front row. This may well be one of Gordon's last best chances to win the 500. He's 39 now and has said he'll walk away from the sport before he's pushed away. How many more Daytona 500s does he have in him? Only Gordon knows, but it's not many. That's why I expect him to be as fearless as a rookie going for the checkers late on Sunday afternoon.

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