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NASCAR's Super Bowl beats the "dog days"
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

It is called the "Great American Race", NASCAR Winston Cup racing's Daytona 500. It's a flat-out belly to the ground, a 500-mile tussle that kicks off NASCAR's annual schedule of events.

Unlike the NFL, MLB, NBA or the NHL, NASCAR chooses to kick off its season with its undisputed Super Bowl. It has served NASCAR well to annually lead with the trump card. February is considered sport's "dog days" -- all-star breaks for the NHL and the NBA leave the second month of each year with little happening of sporting importance.

Harvick and Johnson
Kevin Harvick, left, congratulates Jimmie Johnson on winning his first career Winston Cup pole.
Winter weather builds interest in Daytona. Thousands of snowbirds tired of sub-freezing temperatures and shoveling flock to Daytona, buoyed by the promise of 70-degree days and sunshine. The lure of the throaty roar of NASCAR's stock cars builds interest in the first race.

The $10 million-plus purse draws an overflowing entry list as well as a grandstand sellout. Football is over and there are still some regular season college basketball games before March Madness.

The stage is all NASCAR's.

Except this year.

2002 sees NASCAR sharing the spotlight with the 19th Winter Olympiad in Salt Lake City, Utah. But not to worry. NASCAR's TV partner is also the TV rights holder to the Olympics and has shown its reverence for NASCAR by suspending its non-stop Olympic coverage whenever a wheel is turning in Daytona Beach.

This year's Daytona 500 will be seen by millions of fans who heretofore never bothered with the sport. They came into NASCAR's circle of fans only after witnessing the outpouring of emotion and grief when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the last lap of last year's Daytona 500. The wall-to-wall coverage of the seven-time Winston Cup Champion's accident and ensuing investigation swelled NASCAR's ranks. These fans have seen Daytona and its Firecracker 400 in July, but this will be their first Daytona 500.

NASCAR has said that it hopes to someday reach the same level of influence as the National Football League. When one considers that unlike the NFL, NASCAR's ratings rose in 2001, NASCAR may be closer to realizing its goal than it thinks.

If the Daytona 500 runs off without serious injury and duplicates some of the excitement that has occurred over the 42 years that Daytona has hosted the 500, NASCAR will have another winner on its hands.

Because it is its biggest and most prestigious event of the season, a "boffo" showing means that the 2002 season is a guaranteed success as well.

The NFL wishes that its Super Bowl could do the same.

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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video
 Tony Stewart details his second straight Bud Shootout win with ESPN's Mike Massaro.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick on rounding out the front row for the Daytona 500.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1

 Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. discuss their difficulties catching up to Tony Stewart.
RealVideo: 56.6 | ISDN | T1