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Countless contenders should put on a show

If NASCAR's opening races at Daytona International Speedway are any indication, today's Daytona 500 will certainly live up to its great American nickname.

"I don't think the show can get any better for the fans than what we've seen so far," said Jeff Gordon, "but it probably will."

After a thrilling Bud Shootout (won by Kevin Harvick) and entertaining qualifying races won by Gordon and Kyle Busch, this weekend had a pair of events which had tense, two-line racing for the final 30 laps or so and went right down to the final lap as Tony Stewart won Saturday's Nationwide race and Todd Bodine held off Busch in Friday night's trucks race.

For an event that has seen surprise winners the last two years in Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman, the 51st edition of the Great American Race has no clear favorite.

Contenders are everywhere, whether they are the few teams which are intact from last year, old favorites in new places, breakthrough opportunists on merged teams or a few single-car team long shots.

One equalizing factor is the "Car of Tomorrow," which is in its third season but which has shown to be a field-leveler -- especially on superspeedways like the famed 2.5-mile tri-oval.

"I just think that Daytona and this car, there's just no way you can pick anyone to be the favorite," said Gordon, a four-time Daytona 500 winner. "I think that there's just so many opportunities to pass, there's opportunities to move from the back to the front."

Even if you're using a backup car that you have just a handful of laps on.

Despite Stewart's troubles in Saturday morning's practice, in which a blown tire by teammate Ryan Newman led to both teams having to go to backup cars, he will be using the same car he drove to a third-place finish in the shootout and he was able to drive it in practice.

"To get back on the racetrack in a timely manner like we were, I was really proud of Darian [Grubb, his crew chief] and our guys," said Stewart. "As soon as it happened, they were working hard to get the backup car out, get everything switched over to get it exactly where the primary car was at the end of practice yesterday."

Mark Martin has been a sentimental favorite in past seasons as a part-time driver, but entering the season as a full-timer for Hendrick Motorsports' top team he's a legitimate contender. He showed it by earning the second starting spot and by nearly winning his qualifying race before finishing fourth.

"There's no question he has the killer instinct," said Jeff Burton.

Joey Logano is only 18, but has already shown his precociousness by excelling even while he aw-shucks his way through interviews discussing his lack of experience here. He had the ninth-best top qualifying time for Joe Gibbs Racing, finished fourth in the first qualifier and earned a spot in the ninth starting position.

Logano's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have worked together to help improve his learning curve around the tri-oval, with Kyle Busch driving the car in Friday's practice while Denny Hamlin was listening in on the radio and watching from atop the hauler.

"He's soaking everything in so it's going to take him a little while to get used to things," said Hamlin. "I think for the first half of the race he's going to just have to bide his time and learn all he can, and after that he's going to be fine."

Martin Truex Jr. won the pole and displayed a powerful car before he spun in his qualifying race.

"It is unbelievable, the speed and the power," Truex said. "The engine is incredible. It is the best car as far as speed goes that I have ever had at any plate track. We just need to work on the handling and get it a little bit better."

That's the thing about Daytona. It's not all about speed. Greg Biffle hasn't gotten the most power out of his No. 16 Ford and will start 35th, but he's still confident.

"Our cars have gotten to where they drive really good, and that's more important than speed," he said. " Driving good here in the 500 is important. We knew we're giving up a tiny bit of speed, but that has never normally won the Daytona 500, and I don't think it will this year."

Even the Cinderella stories appear to have much shorter drives to the ball. Scott Riggs and his start-up team at Tommy Baldwin Racing starts 17th and looked stronger than your typical go-or-go-home driver in coming in eighth in the first qualifying race. Travis Kvapil posted the eighth-best time in qualifying. Veteran Bill Elliott might be starting 40th but he nearly won the pole and was running strong in his qualifying race.

"There is an opportunity for the little guy to come to the Daytona 500 and make a splash, and some of those guys ran really well," said Jeff Burton. "That is a factor of the COT [Car of Tomorrow]."

The fastest time in the last two practice sessions bring more names: the best Saturday morning was Reed Sorenson (46.979 seconds; 191.575 mph), while Jamie McMurray was first Friday (46.986; 191.548).

"It's anybody's race," said Gordon. "It's the most competitive that I've ever seen it . . . You're probably going to see the race come down to the end and a shootout."

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Catch Keith McShea's blogs and chats on the Sports, Ink blog at buffalonews.com/blogs

e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com

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