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Saturday, February 18, 2006
Junior and Gordon are the drivers to beat

By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Picking favorites for a race which will inevitably feature a mid-race explosion of cars which we've come to expect from the close racing superspeedway rules have created, is a crap shoot. I've tried for five years, and I've been right once (Jeff Gordon proved me lucky last season).

This year, the four-time Cup champion cautions: "I don't know how you can just pick one guy."

I agree.

I'm picking two.

For his propensity for finding Victory Lane at superspeedways, I'm picking 2004 Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. And for his dominance during these Speedweeks, I'm going back to the well with 2005 Daytona 500 champ Gordon.

Neither choice is a venture too far out on the limb, I admit. Even though both missed NASCAR's 10-race playoff last season, they each maintained consistency in their superspeedway performance, where NASCAR mandates use of a restrictor plate on the carburetor on the cars' engines. Junior finished third at both of last season's Daytona races. And after winning the 500 last season, Gordon won the next superspeedway race, at Talladega Superspeedway. He also notched a 7th-place finish at the second Daytona race last year.

"I think anybody that feels like we slipped on the restrictor-plate tracks haven't seen restrictor-plate racing for the last couple years," Gordon said. "I mean, I think that no matter what our seasons are like, what's happening with our team, we always seem to be pretty steady at restrictor-plate tracks."

Gordon and his No. 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo crew look steady as ever this year.

Gordon and Co. laid claim to the outside position on Row 1 for the start of Sunday's race with the second-fastest lap during time trials last weekend. The team then competed in the second of two Duel 150 qualifying races which fill out the rest of the Daytona field. He already had a front-row starting position and couldn't possibly improve upon it, but Gordon managed to lead the most laps in his race and won.

"With the performance that we've got going for us already this week, I'd like to think that we're one of the favorites," Gordon said. "But whether we're the guy to beat or not, we'll find out in the closing laps of the 500."

Gordon said his confidence stems both from his performance here so far and also by the motivation his entire team is feeling.

"I think years like [last season] make you hungrier, make you humble, make you appreciate the competition and teamwork and so many different things," said Gordon, who finished 11th in the points standings in 2005.

"I look at one side where, you know, I hated to go through what we went through, the frustration through the summer, different races. I mean, you have no idea how disappointing they were even to ourselves. But then at the same time it's kind of the best thing that could have happened for us this year because we were able to make a bunch of changes … That, definitely, I feel like was a real positive that came out of that tough year we had."

If you're the type that scours practice speeds, you'll notice that Gordon hasn't led any of the four practice sessions here since qualifying last week. In fact, the highest he's appeared in any practice was 16th on Thursday. But Gordon said that's not due to a lack of speed. It's just strategy. Since Gordon spent the entire Duel 150 in the lead pack of drivers, the team worried that they wouldn't know how his car handled in the middle of a pack under racing conditions.

"In practice, we try to put ourselves in that position and see what it does," Gordon said. "One of the things I think all of us have been working on, most cars and drivers I've talked to, have heard about, they're all pushing in traffic. I got shuffled back there [in the Duel 150 to] about second or third one time. Every step of the way, every car that you get shuffled [to the] back [of], the way the air moves around the car gets more drastic and the changes happen more and more.

"We don't want to get in that position in the race on Sunday, but we want to be prepared for it in case it does. You can't build a car or set up a car so that it's great in traffic -- 15th or 20th -- and expect it to drive good when you get to the front. You want to build a car that's good in the first five."

It looks like Gordon's got the car to do it. In fact, the team felt so confident with the 24 car that it decided to skip out entirely on the final practice before Sunday's race. That's not to say he expects to go out and lead every lap. He said the team doesn't even expect to dominate as they did in their Duel by leading two-thirds of the laps. But, the number of laps led doesn't matter to the team.

"There's only one that we really want to lead," he said, "but you got to be in position to do it."

Junior hasn't had as much success as Gordon this Speedweeks. In fact, some would view Elliott Sadler, who won the first Duel 150 and posted the fourth-fastest qualifying lap, as a better choice. But Junior hasn't struggled during Speedweeks and if he manages to get anywhere close to the front on Sunday, it's hard to keep him out of Victory Lane.

"My 500 car is good enough to win," he said, before revealing his plan for Sunday's drive.

"Get to the front; get the trophy. That's the plan. … Just haul butt and pass people. We've got a fast car. The car is there. We've just got to get some good pit stops and make no mistakes. We can pass them all on the race track. That's no problem."

Junior finished third in the Budweiser Shootout exhibition last Sunday. He was off in qualifying, but when his car got around others and he was able to work the draft which is created by the wind currents around the mammoth speedway, Junior managed to finish third in the first Duel 150.

His confidence is high and, because he's already won a Daytona 500, the pressure he feels is low. He's looking for a leisurely Sunday drive, followed by a raucus post-race party in the Winner's Circle.

"We don't have any problem being good in the draft," he said. "We've always been good in the draft. We'll be fine. There have been some stronger cars here over the last couple of years, but we're still the best."

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com