The 2003 race will be held Saturday at 8 p.m. at Daytona International Speedway. Drivers who will compete in the event seemed excited about the change in time and format on Friday.
"I think it's exciting," said Ford driver Mark Martin, who finished as runner-up to Tony Stewart in the 2002 Winston Cup championship race. "Night racing is fantastic for the fans and the competitors, too. There's no better way to start off the Winston Cup season."
The new race format calls for an initial 20-lap segment. At lap 20, a caution flag will be thrown, and teams will come down pit road for a 10-minute break to add fuel, change tires and make minor chassis adjustments.
Drivers will align themselves in the same way they finished the first segment for a final 50-lap run that will require at least one fuel stop to complete, due to 13.5-gallon fuel cells mandated by NASCAR for Speedweeks 2003.
During both segments, caution laps count. But this year, the race must finish under green.
last year's race was a straight 70 laps.
"The thing I've been concerned about (regarding the new format)," said Dale Jarett, "is that here at Daytona, where we want to get things separated a little bit, that usually happens in the last 15 or 20 laps of a run, when the handling starts going away. Now, you're not going to have that extra 15 or 20 laps, so everybody is going to have fresher tires on.
"Is that going to keep things bunched up for us? We'll just see how it plays out."
Kurt Busch said he thinks the cars will stay bunched together Saturday night.
"If you had a straight 70-lap race, it would easily be single-file in 10 or 15 laps, and there might not be any passing," Busch said. "The guy in the front might win the thing, so this at least will mix everything up.
"They'll get everybody two-by-two again and get the draft bigger so we have a chance to pass a little more. It should be a little more exciting for the fans."
The smaller fuel cells also could add to the drama.
"It's going to be interesting," Jarrett said. "Obviously, we've been calculating already to get an idea, and Saturday night will give us a little more of an idea of exactly how far we can go, but it looks like that 40-lap mark is going to be pretty magical.
"Obviously, pit work is going to be very important, and decisions that you make on the race track are going to be very important. You're going to have to be very calculating in the moves that you make. I think it's going to be a lot easier to go backwards than it is to go forward, so you have to be very careful when you go to make those moves."
Stewart will be going for his third straight Shootout victory and his first win in a Chevrolet. Stewart won last year's championship in his final season of driving a Pontiac.
"It's a perfect time of day for me," Stewart said of Saturday's night-time time start. "That's when I really get going is when the sun goes down.
"For once, I won't be rubbing my eyes at the drivers meeting. I'll be up, going: 'Hey, what's going on guys?' I'll be ready to go.
"I think the fans are really going to enjoy it," Stewart said. "it's nice to see NASCAR throw a little variety and change in there for the fans."
Despite a starting time that suits him better, Stewart said winning the race will be as difficult as ever.
"I'd love to win three in a row," he said. "Who wouldn't? I'd love to win 20 in a row, but the odds of that happening are slim.
"The odds of winning two in a row last year probably weren't in my favor, but I won two in a row last year, so you never know. We'll know after 70 laps, won't we?"
Jarrett said he couldn't ask for a more appropriate scenario to start the season.
"I've always said that racing at night makes everything appear to be a little more spectacular," Jarrett said. "It's fun racing here at night. Hopefully, the weather will stay pretty good, and it's not too cool for the fans.
"That's the kind of race that you need to have at night because it's just about winning. It doesn't matter where else you finish."
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