Commentary

A classic Daytona 500 on tap

Updated: February 26, 2012, 11:39 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When there is heightened danger of chaos as unintended consequences of a new rules package … when there is an established star who has won everything that matters in NASCAR except its showcase race, and feels that void more with every year, yet has all the momentum going in this time … when the most heralded starter of all is a rookie … when you get a little claustrophobic with the ordeal of just driving in and out of the infield among the wandering masses and their motor homes … when the traffic crawls maddeningly on International Speedway Boulevard, down to the beach and down Highway A-1-A for miles and miles … when clouds of sea gulls soar, fleeing the iron thunder rising from the track …

… Then you know the Daytona 500 is back in classic mode.

There is higher anxiety in the garages over new rules than any since the notorious "wicker bill" package that got Dale Earnhardt into the jam that got him killed here in 2001. Yet for all the worries about massive wrecks and blowing engines that come with NASCAR's attempt to break up tandem racing in favor of pack drafting -- and the looming worst of both worlds -- there is now less danger of driver fatality in this, the 54th running, than ever before at Daytona.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. has been looking confident at Daytona so far.

After Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 on his 20th try, in 1998, he snatched a little stuffed animal from his uniform and flung it into a crowd of reporters, proclaiming, "I've got that g------ monkey off my back!"

That critter has crept up Tony Stewart's shoulders for 13 years now, and it's getting near the gorilla size and ferocity that Earnhardt bore. Indeed, Stewart, reigning as Cup champion for the third time, is now second in all-time wins (17) to Earnhardt (34) in various types of races at Daytona International Speedway. It's just the biggest deal of all he hasn't closed.

"When you look at talent level, accomplishments and stats … to me, it's starting to get into that category," Jeff Gordon said of the Stewart-Earnhardt comparison. Gordon, of course, can speak comfortably, having won this race three times. "He's got a few more years. And I know Tony hopes he doesn't get all the way into that category. But Dale went for a long time without getting that victory, and Tony is building toward that."

And now, all through Speedweeks heading into Sunday, Stewart has shown the most consistency and strength of any driver, winning his 150-mile qualifying race and losing the Bud Shootout to Kyle Busch by a nose.

But we saw that kind of groundswell of momentum here so many times by Earnhardt as he suffered through those 19 years.

Stewart figures "the fact that we've won 17 times here and not won on the right day," plus his performance thus far this week, amounts to little more than "good momentum."

Due to a history of Speedweeks dominators falling short in the 500 -- Earnhardt being the classic example but Kurt Busch last year being the most recent -- Stewart said after winning his qualifying race that "Even though we had success today, it's no guarantee that can happen Sunday."

As for the highly anticipated rookie who has a way of appearing from time to time here, just fill in the blank … Janet Guthrie in 1977 … Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2000 …

And now Danica Patrick in 2012.

Guthrie in '77, as a woman ahead of her time, was not particularly welcomed here. And she wasn't glamorous, and she hadn't shown flashes of ability to win, as Patrick has occasionally in the Indianapolis 500.

On Thursday, in her qualifying race, Patrick paid her dues of hard knocks with the nation watching and further demonstrated the safety of NASCAR's current cars and SAFER barriers, as she walked away from a horrific crash in which her car hit first on the right front -- not a great deal different from Earnhardt's fatal hit of '01.

And Patrick started Saturday's Nationwide race here on the pole and ran in the top 10 some before being nudged into a spin by Cole Whitt.

So Patrick easily is the most heralded, most welcomed, most popular woman ever to start the Daytona 500.

Then there are the usual suspects, the usual factors in this race, led by comeback-threatening Dale Jr., the 2004 winner who will start fifth Sunday and has shown the most confidence of recent years now that the rules have returned restrictor-plate racing to his forte, big-pack drafting.

Former 500 winners Matt Kenseth (starting fourth), Jimmie Johnson (eighth), Kevin Harvick (13th), Jeff Gordon (16th), Ryan Newman (18th), Jamie McMurray (19th) and defending champion Trevor Bayne (40th) all could win again, because NASCAR's biggest race is also one of its four biggest crapshoots -- the plate races here and at Talladega.

Two drivers overdue to win this race -- but not as badly as Stewart -- will start on the front row. Carl Edwards is on the pole, with his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle outside.

Non-Daytona 500 winners Kyle Busch (14th) and Regan Smith (sixth) are proven plate racers who have flashed strength this week and should be factors at times, if not at the finish.

And that's all without factoring in the great unknown in this race, the attrition that could come with engines that have been overheating all week due to NASCAR's tandem-breakup attempts, engines that could blow in significant numbers under the relentless stresses of 500 miles.

Drivers still have to switch places to avoid overheating, just as they did in recent years with tandem racing. But now they must make the maneuvers while drafting in big packs, and at times pairs may not be given room by the others to make the critical switch maneuvers.

Such attrition could throw the race back 30 years or more in NASCAR technology, to the days when, no matter who was leading this race, by how far, there was always a risk that the engine might blow, right down to the last lap.

Yet even that throwback uncertainty would make the 54th Daytona 500 even more classic.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.