By Lars Anderson
February 12, 2010

His hands in the pockets of his winter coat, the most powerful owner in American motor sports walked down pit road at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday afternoon. One of his drivers, Jimmie Johnson, had just won the first of two qualifying races for Sunday's 500. Now Rick Hendrick smiled widely as he neared another of one his drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was about to roar onto the track for the second qualifying race.

"That's one down," Hendrick said to an acquaintance. "Now we've just got to keep it going."

Is it any surprise that, so far, Hendrick Motorsports has dominated Speedweeks at Daytona? Last Saturday, Hendrick drivers qualified first (Mark Martin) and second (Earnhardt) for the Great American Race. Then Johnson took the checkered flag in his qualifier -- his first win in a Daytona duel race -- and Little E led five laps in his qualifier before sustaining damage to his right front fender. Will a Hendrick driver win on Sunday?

In a word: Yes.

This should be a memorable 500. Because NASCAR has made the holes in the restrictor plates as large as they've been since 1989, speeds will be up on Sunday. Forty cars, after all, were faster in qualifying than the pole winner was last year. And because NASCAR has relaxed its rules on bump-drafting -- drivers can now slam into the rear of another car wherever they please, not just in the straightaways, which was the only place they could attempt this dicey maneuver last year -- the race could very well feature more banging and paint trading (and hence more wrecks) than any in recent memory.

There's also this: NASCAR will no longer penalize for aggressive driving. The governing body told drivers during the offseason that they'll be allowed to police themselves. Add this all up and you have a recipe for a riveting race.

The Gatorade duel races on Thursday were certainly compelling. Both came down to photo finishes: Johnson beat Kevin Harvick by a mere five-thousandths of a second and then Kasey Kahne, displaying impressive horsepower with his new Ford engine, held off a hard-charging Tony Stewart by 14-thousandths of a second. In both events, there was an abundance of passing, fender smashing and cunning pit strategy.

"If anyone says racing at Daytona isn't the best it's ever been," said Michael Waltrip, who narrowly qualified for the 500, "they don't know racing."

I agree.I think Sunday's race will come down to a battle between five drivers:

Johnson, Earnhardt, Kahne, Stewart, and -- my darkhorse -- Juan Pablo Montoya.

My pick is Little E. I had a long chat with Lance McGrew, who is Earnhardt's crew chief, late Thursday. Even though his driver finished a disappointing 21st in his duel race, McGrew couldn't have been much happier. Their plan was to go full-throttle only for their first fuel run, and McGrew liked what he saw. Earnhardt, starting from the pole, led the first five laps and had a smooth-handling car, which is the key to winning the 500, before he suffered damage to his right front fender that caused him to fade to the back.

Sunday's race is absolutely critical for Earnhardt. Coming off the worst season of his career -- he finished 25th in the points last year while his teammates came in first (Johnson), second (Mark Martin) and third (Jeff Gordon) in the final standings -- Junior needs a fast start to 2010. He remains one of the best restrictor plate racers in NASCAR and his No. 88 team, which was infused with plenty of fresh blood this offseason, looks to be as strong as it's ever been.

"Hopefully we can make a statement on Sunday," McGrew said as he stood next to the green-and-white No. 88 Chevy on Thursday evening. "There's no question it's a big day for us."

A day that, I think, will end with McGrew and his driver in Victory Lane.

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