Plenty of sentimental favorites in 50th running of Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Everybody loves a fairy-tale ending.

Give us that syrupy sweet finish that brings a tear to your eye, a smile to your face or such a good feeling in your heart that you want to jump for joy.

Ahhhh. I'm getting all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it.

New York Giants fans know all about that these days.

Warm and fuzzy isn't the typical way most people see NASCAR, but it has it moments. One of those moments could come in the 50th Daytona 500.

Five names meet the test on the list of sentimental favorites -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Kyle Petty.

We don't mean favored to win it, although an Earnhardt or Martin victory wouldn't surprise us. We mean favored status. A victory by one of these five drivers would bring almost universal praise.

One stands above the others. Do you really have to guess which one?

If Junior wins the Daytona 500 in his first points race at Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR should declare him the sovereign leader and knight him in Victory Lane.

"It's going to be quite a spectacle with it being the 50th," Earnhardt said. "I'm sure we want to win it as bad as anybody right now. It'll be a pretty big deal whoever wins it. But it would be great for our team to start off like that."

The I-told-you-so comments from Earnhardt's legion of fans would include listing him as the instant favorite to win the title. In the eyes of many, it would prove Earnhardt only needed top equipment to reach championship status.

Would it? Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 while racing for Dale Earnhardt Inc. The restrictor-plate races always have been DEI's strength, and Junior has shown he has the family gene for drafting to the front on the two-plate tracks.

However you look at it, an Earnhardt victory is the biggest and most dramatic way NASCAR could imagine to start the 2008 Cup season.

Second on the list is Martin. For pure sentimentality, he's the clear pick. Martin has competed in 23 Daytona 500s without winning, but he came within inches of a victory last year.

Kevin Harvick edged ahead of Martin at the line as a dozen cars were wrecking behind them in one of the wildest final laps in Daytona history.

Martin is one of the most respected and well-liked drivers to ever sit in a stock car. But two things have eluded him -- a Cup title and a Daytona 500 win.

Martin switched to a partial schedule last year, so a championship isn't doable now. But winning the Daytona 500 is a realistic possibility in his first Daytona race for DEI.

Some of the people who worked on the No. 8 car when Earnhardt won the 500 are still there, which gives Martin confidence about his chances.

"On paper, I have a better shot at it than I had a year ago," Martin said. "But let me tell you something. I drove the race of my life last year. My team [at Ginn Racing] gave the effort of their lifetime. That doesn't happen every day.

"But the 8 car has done it and DEI has a great history here. Those things all point in the right direction, but I also believe in the odds. After last year, the odds are against you'll come that close again one year later."

At age 49, Martin understands how much it would mean to many fans for him to finally win NASCAR's biggest show.

"It's a real special time in my career with the way people have supported me and rallied behind me," Martin said. "It's meant more to me than any trophy. I know how much of a fairy tale it would be to win this."

This may or may not be Martin's last Daytona 500, but Jarrett says this is it for him. He's competing in the first five races this season before embarking on a full-time career as a broadcaster.

Jarrett's situation is much different from Martin's. Jarrett has a chance to become only the third man to win four Daytona 500s (Richard Petty won seven and Cale Yarborough won four) and the first to do so in 24 years.

"That would be perfect," Jarrett said. "Those are storybook endings, and we know those don't happen a lot. I've been very fortunate. I've exceeded all the dreams I had for my career.

"It's time to move on. I've come to grips with it, but February 17th may be a difficult day. To finish well in my last 500 would make it much more enjoyable."

Petty also is near the end of his career. This will be his 30th year in Cup, but Petty hasn't experienced the success that Jarrett and Martin have enjoyed.

Petty hasn't won a race in 12 years. A victory for Kyle in the Daytona 500 would go down as one of the biggest surprises in sports history, not just NASCAR history.

Having Petty Enterprise back in Victory Lane at Daytona isn't out of the question. Labonte thinks this is the best chance he's had in his three seasons as the driver of the famous No. 43 Dodge.

"We can see so many things moving forward now," Labonte said. "You actually notice the progress we're making."

Winning the 500 is the big thing the Labonte family hasn't done in NASCAR. Big brother Terry won two Cup titles and Bobby has one, but neither man has won at Daytona.

"That's one of the things I still want to accomplish," Labonte said. "It's our Super Bowl, so everybody wants to win it at least once."

If one of these five guys takes the checkered flag, the 50th Daytona 500 gets the fairy-tale ending everyone loves to see.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.