REINHOLD MATAY / AP Enlarge
NASCAR looked at a pack of 43 cars, each weighing about 3,400 pounds, and all hurtling down the backstretch at Daytona International Speedway at close to 200 miles per hour, and asked what it could add to possibly enhance this picture.
Excitement. They said it needed more excitement.
So for today's Daytona 500, NASCAR made the cars faster and gave the drivers permission to be nastier.
One rule change has made the intake holes bigger in the restrictor plates that are intended to limit speed and improve safety. Mark Martin's pole qualifying speed for the 500 was 191.188 mph - the fastest in more than a decade.
Another rules tweak had Sprint Cup Series officials easing the rules on bump-drafting, meaning the banging and paint swapping - and the crashes that ultimately follow - will increase. And in a move to put more of the sport's vivid personalities on display, NASCAR indicated it will no longer levy penalties for aggressive driving, opting to have the drivers police themselves.
Defiance native Sam Hornish Jr., who is running in his third Daytona 500, expects the exhilaration factor to be accelerated.
"I am excited about the rules changes NASCAR has implemented," Hornish said. "We're going to have increased speeds and improved closing rates, which will create more on-track action. Everything that NASCAR is doing is to create more exciting races for the fans. I see the Daytona 500 as full of possibilities."
Hornish finished 15th in this race - the Super Bowl of stock car racing - in 2008 and was running near the top 20 last year before debris on the grille of his No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge Charger forced him to the pits and dropped him to 32nd in the field. He said his Penske Racing team has put him in position for a strong run in today's 500.
"The guys have worked really hard in the engine shop and chassis shop trying to make sure that we come down here with the best equipment that we can possibly have," Hornish said. "This is just a credit to Penske Racing. This is exactly what we needed."
Hornish, who had two top-five finishes and was in the top-10 seven times in Sprint Cup races last year, expects bigger and better things in 2010. With drafting help so critical to success at Daytona, Hornish and his Penske teammates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski plan to work together whenever possible throughout the race.
"You can't win these plate races unless you've got that buddy that wants to stick with you," Busch said. "Having two strong teammates with Keselowski and Hornish, we're looking pretty strong right now."
It is the Hendrick Motorsports teammates who are stacked up at the front of the field for the start of the race. Veteran Martin is on the pole, with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting second, four-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson starting third, and Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner of this race, starting 11th.
Earnhardt, whose last Cup win came in the Lifelock 400 at Michigan International Speedway in 2008, won the Daytona 500 to start the 2004 season. He said success at Daytona can translate into a great year.
"What we do here at Daytona is incredibly important," Earnhardt said. "There's no other race that we put so much preparation into."
Earnhardt said despite having all four Hendrick cars near the front for the start of today's race, there is no guarantee they will be in close proximity and able to help each other once the marathon event plays out.
"The race is really long, and you'll see just about everybody in the field at some point in time," he said. "If you're in a position to work with your teammates, you obviously do it. If they're in a side-by-side situation, you try to get up there and help 'em out of it. That's just kind of how you do it.
"At the end of the race, though, you kind of got to do whatever you think you need to do to put yourself in position to win the race. That's kind of how you have to play it at the end because you definitely don't want to make the wrong move trying to save someone else's tail. That's not what you're in the race for."
Matt Kenseth, winner of the 2009 Daytona 500, will start today in the 24th position, but Kenseth is upbeat, saying he had to overcome some early setbacks to take home last year's trophy.
"Last year was really weird because it was really frustrating for me all week, and then, obviously, it was the best it could have possibly been in the 500," Kenseth said. "It took three cars and every single different thing we could think of setup-wise [to get there]. We just really struggled, but finally got it right for the 500. I hope it's not that hard this year, but I hope we have the same result."
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, who slipped into the starting grid for today's race despite spinning out and ending up 25th in one of the qualifying races, said the rule changes and the makeup of the field guarantee this will be a thrill-packed season-opener for the Sprint Cup Series.
"If anyone says racing at Daytona isn't the best it's ever been, then they don't know racing," Waltrip said.
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