Sunday, February 15, 2004

Top stories not limited to race's winning driver

By Jeff D'Alessio
Florida Today

The president's coming. Ben Affleck will tell drivers to start their engines, and Whoopi Goldberg will help get the field going.

OK, so it's not Justin and Janet, but the celebrity lineup for today's Daytona 500 is as star-studded as the racing lineup itself.

Those are just a few of the items to keep an eye on when NBC begins its pre-race special at noon. Here's a look at 10 others:

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's favorite son, will be everywhere this weekend - from TV commercials (with Wrangler Jeans and Drakkar cologne now on board, Junior makes more from endorsements than driving) to VH-1 (we highly recommend Driven: Dale Earnhardt Jr., a documentary that airs at 6 p.m. today on the music channel).

2. Benny Parsons, Bill Weber and the rest of NBC's broadcast crew. Who will be the first to slip up and say "Winston Cup" instead of "Nextel Cup"? Knowing it's bound to happen, the NBC crew has a kitty going - $10 for each time anyone calls it Winston Cup.

3. Tony Eury Sr. and Michael Waltrip. Is this any way for teammates to act? Junior's crew chief blasted Waltrip after Waltrip passed Earnhardt (who later returned the favor) in Thursday's Twin 125 qualifying race, telling TNT, "Seems like our teammate don't want to be our teammate no more, so we ended up dumping him." Waltrip's response? "Tony's an idiot. Dale Jr. and I will drive the cars. He needs to worry about changing tires or whatever it is he does."

Expect teamwork to take a back seat again today, with the winner pocketing a minimum of $1,391,730.

4. NASCAR'S next big thing, Brian Vickers, became the youngest driver ever to win a championship in one of its national series, taking the 2003 Busch crown. The youngest regular in Cup history at 20, Vickers will drive for Hendrick Motorsports and start 35th in today's 500.

5. The pre-race entertainment. No need to worry about anyone taking their clothes off today. Country singers LeAnn Rimes and Lee Greenwood will be among the performers.

6. The Labonte boys. You know Bobby and Terry will want to put on a good show with fellow Texan George Bush in the house. You can't miss Bobby. He'll be the one driving the car with the promo for the controversial Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of the Christ, on the hood.

7. Jimmie Johnson. The Sporting News' favorite to win it all this season, he'll take the longest current streak for consecutive weeks in the top 10 into today's race (69 weeks). If Johnson stays in the top 10 all season, he'll pass The King - Richard Petty - for sixth place on the all-time list.

8. Jeff Burton. He's a 40-to-1 shot to win the 500, according to USA Today oddsmaker Danny Sheridan but knows he needs a strong showing to impress sponsors.

The Roush racer doesn't have a major corporation signed on for the season. He'll promote the NBA All-Star Game today as part of a one-race deal with TNT, which is hard to fathom for a guy who finished in the top five in points every year from 1997-2000.

9. Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd. No one's hungrier for a 500 win more than these two, who have taken part in all 37 restrictor-plate races at Daytona since 1988, never to win.

10. Your favorite meteorologist. The latest forecast calls for morning showers and a 50 percent chance of precipitation, which could bump the big race back a few hours, if not a day. The good news: Monday's a holiday.

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