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NASCAR

Pack 'em in for the Daytona 500

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, mile tri-oval. Start time: 1:00 p.m. (et). Laps: 200. Miles: 500. 2011 Winner: Trevor Bayne. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN) /SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.

This year's Daytona 500 is shaping up to be another thriller, perhaps more breathtaking than last year's season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Why?

After what we saw in last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, the pack is back and the two-car tandems are pretty much gone at Daytona. And the drivers as well as the fans are happy to see the big draft return.

"This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff was," reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart said after finishing second in the Budweiser Shootout. "I still like the open motor races better where we can literally control our own destiny, but this is by far a lot better than what we had with the two-car stuff."

Since the most recent restrictor-plate race -- last October at Talladega Superspeedway -- NASCAR has made numerous modifications to the Sprint Cup cars, including alterations to the restrictor plates and the front grille openings. NASCAR anticipated the changes would drastically reduce the number of two-car breakaways and bring back the packs.

The Budweiser Shootout featured three big crashes, including the final one that involved eight cars. Jeff Gordon endured the worst of that incident when his car got turned upside down and then flipped several times before it came to rest on its roof along the backstretch.

Kyle Busch remarkably bounced back from two near wrecks and then beat Stewart to the finish line by inches to win the preseason, non-points race at Daytona. Busch made a sling-shot pass on Stewart for the lead coming out of the final turn of the last lap.

Stewart begins his title defense at Daytona with a lot of new faces on his team this year, including crew chief Steve Addington.

Three months ago, Stewart won at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished the season in a points tie with Carl Edwards. Stewart captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the season -- all of them coming in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Edwards had only one victory for the year -- Las Vegas.

As of now, Stewart is tied with Bobby Allison for the second-most race wins at Daytona with 16. Stewart has three wins in both the Coke Zero 400 (July Sprint Cup race) and the Budweiser Shootout as well as two victories in the Gatorade Duel. He also has six Nationwide race victories and two in IROC events at this track.

But Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 13 attempts.

"Two tracks we haven't won at and the Daytona 500 we haven't won at everything else we have pretty much accomplished in this sport that we want to accomplish," Stewart said. "It's the biggest race of the year. Everyone wants to win that race. I won't say that it is not a complete career if you don't win it, but there is a lot of priority on this. Darrell Waltrip and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it."

It took Earnhardt 20 attempts to win the Daytona 500. Waltrip's first win in this race came after 17 years of trying.

Edwards' lap at 194.738 mph during last Sunday's time trials earned him the pole position for the 54th running of the Daytona 500. Edwards has now accumulated 11 career poles in the series, including one last November at Homestead.

"It feels really nice," he said. "This is our second pole in a row. Feels nice to pick up right where we left off."

Dale Jarrett is the last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole, doing so in 2000. Edwards' best finish in this race is second, which came last year.

There have been 11 different drivers who have won the Daytona 500 since 2000. Trevor Bayne is the defending race winner. One day after turning 20 years old, Bayne shocked the auto racing world by taking the checkered flag for NASCAR's most prestigious event of the season. He did it in just his second Sprint Cup start.

Can Bayne pull off another stunning victory in the Daytona 500?

"That's the plan," he said. "We wouldn't have come if we didn't think we could win. There's a little bit more pressure this year. We're not exactly flying under the radar, but I think we can go for it, that's for sure."

If Bayne wins Sunday's race, he would join Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) as those drivers who won back-to-back Daytona 500s.

The Daytona 500 also will mark the highly anticipated debut of Danica Patrick in Sprint Cup. Patrick is guaranteed a starting position in the race, since her No.10 Tommy Baldwin Racing team is in the top 35 for owner points. TBR recently formed an alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing to assure her a spot in the race.

"I have a fast car, so I think that's taken care of, but I think it's going to take some good breaks and a patient race, staying out of trouble," Patrick said. "You know it would be nice to kind of keep toward the front. I've found that when you are up near the front, away from the thick of things, you're much less likely to be caught in an accident that smoke is filled the air to and you can't miss or you can't see. But I think luck is going to play a big factor."

Patrick will become the third female to start the Daytona 500, following Janet Guthrie (1977 and '80) and Shawna Robinson (2002).