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Sunday, February 16, 2003
Updated: February 24, 6:15 PM ET
What did you expect?

By Jonathan Baum
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500. Where nothing matters.

Or, to be more accurate, nothing which took place at Daytona International Speedway over the previous two weeks -- or even the previous years -- matters when it comes to Sunday's race.

Need evidence? Last season, Tony Stewart won the Bud Shootout. Several days later he finished second in his 125 qualifying race.

As for Sunday's main event? Engine failure. 43rd-place finish. Dead last.

Sterling Marlin
Who would have expected Sterling Marlin to again break the rules at Daytona?

Fast forward to 2003. Bud Shootout winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Gatorade 125 winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Busch race winner: Why, Dale Jr., of course.

Sunday's outcome: Faulty battery drops Junior off the lead lap and all but ends his hopes of a Daytona sweep.

All that success earlier in the week? Told ya -- didn't matter.

One can't go as far as to say that absolutely anything can happen. There are usually at least a handful of cars that have virtually no shot of winning this or any race.

But in the same breath, you must admit that at restrictor-plate races, even the surest of sure things is always followed by a question mark.

This was supposed to be Earnhardt Jr.'s race. If not him, then maybe Michael Waltrip. Or how about the RCR drivers?

One of them won the pole. Didn't matter. A wreck took out Jeff Green.

Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon were good, but not completely dominant like they were allegedly supposed to be. The pre-race hype concerning DEI and RCR? OK, so it might not have been far off. But ask Green and Junior -- it still didn't matter.

And drivers know that. In fact, they're usually the ones trying to convince the rest of the world that it's Daytona; it's crazy, anything can and will happen, it's anyone's game.

To be successful here, cars need to stay out of trouble. And it's not easy -- just ask Bobby Labonte. The guy drove all the way onto pit road to keep his nose clean, yet still couldn't avoid trouble.

No, the surest way -- and remember what we decided about "sure" -- to do that is to be lucky and try to stay up front. Cars riding in the middle of the pack are cars that get taken out by someone else's mess.

But even riding up front is no guarantee for a safe Sunday drive at Daytona. Just ask Harvick about his 2002 appearance here. His wreck caused the Big One last year.

Yes, the Big One -- a pre-race expectation you can actually count on coming to fruition in this race. Except there was no Big One this year. One spectacular crash, sure, but nothing involving a dozen cars. Another unfulfilled expectation.

OK, so Waltrip -- one of the race favorites -- did win. But like it or not, the rain puts an asterisk next to the victory. Doesn't diminish it -- just adds a footnote.

But even within Waltrip's win might have been Earnhardt Jr.'s disappointment. With his buddy leading the race, Junior had a great shot at getting his lap back had the race resumed. And we all know how fast Junior can move through the field -- that's his reputation. It could have been the Great Comeback, reminiscent of his father's blaze to victory at Talladega a few years back.

But alas, what could have been didn't matter, either. The rain kept coming and the race ended.

End of story. A memorable story.

But it's not the racing that always makes this race memorable. Rather, it's the fact that it's the Daytona 500 that makes the racing memorable.

Sunday's chain of events takes place at a Fontana, Calif., or a Joliet, Ill.? Maybe a footnote in the NASCAR annals.

But at Daytona? Everyone will remember Ryan Newman's flip, Sterling Marlin drawing another NASCAR penalty at Daytona, the rain, Earnhardt Jr.'s troubles, defending race-winner Ward Burton's crash, the rain, Mariah Carey, John Travolta.

It's the biggest race on the schedule. The biggest race of the year. It's just one race, but at the same time the stakes are higher.

There's prestige. There are bragging rights.

There's pride.

And the winner of the race is decided by a culmination of many moments and dozens of details.

And they'll remember it all.

Because at Daytona, everything matters.

Jonathan Baum is an RPM editor at ESPN.com.