The season's first competition, the Budweiser Shootout, will be run under the lights.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Tony Stewart is a Prince of Darkness on the NASCAR circuit because he loves racing at night.
So, the Winston Cup champion couldn't be happier that the Budweiser Shootout -- the first competition of the year for 19 of the sport's biggest names -- will be run under the lights for the first time tonight.
"It's a perfect time of day for me," Stewart said happily. "When I really get going is when the sun goes down.
"For once, I won't be rubbing my eyes at the drivers meeting."
Stewart forged much of his early racing success and won his first championships under the lights on short tracks.
Made for TV event
The race at Daytona International Speedway is the 25th edition of the made-for-TV event that began as the Busch Clash. It pays $200,000 to the winner.
The non-points race includes the previous season's pole winners and former winners of the event.
This year's field includes the top 11 finishers in the 2002 Winston Cup standings, 15 different pole winners and former Shootout winners Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader and Geoffrey Bodine.
He's the only driver in the lineup without a ride for 2003 and the man who picked the pole position for the race in a blind draw.
Bodine, driving brother Brett's car, finished third in last year's Daytona 500 but was unable to find a ride for the race on Feb. 16. Brett, a struggling owner-driver, didn't think to offer Geoffrey his car until last week.
"He deserves to be in the field," Brett said.
Among Geoffrey's competitors will be the third Bodine brother, Todd.
"Maybe we can team up and help each other," said Geoffrey, a former Daytona winner. "I'd love to see him or me win this Shootout. But this is Brett's car and he is on a tight budget and I have to be careful."
Test new cars
The Shootout will be the first opportunity for the series regulars to test their new cars under race conditions.
Chevrolet and Pontiac are introducing new models, and all four makes, including Ford and Dodge, now have to fit a series of standard templates to make it through technical inspection.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett is excited about the likelihood that all of the cars will be on a level plain this year because of the so-called "common templates."
"To be quite honest, the last two years just because of the rules ... we felt like they were certainly against our Fords a little bit, so you didn't get as excited," the 1999 series champion said. "You were still excited to be at Daytona to start a new season and knew that if everything went perfect we might be able to get into Victory Lane, but this year is different.
"I think we now have rules that allow anybody that's here the opportunity to win."
Jarrett expects the Shootout to give teams a better idea of what to expect in next week's race.
"I don't know that any of us really know what to expect," he said. "I think we're going to see close competition. Are we going to be able to pass? I'm not exactly sure.
"I think it's going to be difficult to do that, but I think you're going to be able to use the draft and make that work."
The format for this year's race has been changed. Instead of running 70 laps with no break, this year's Shootout will be halted for a 10-minute intermission after the first 20 laps and will then close with a 50-lap dash on the 21/2-mile oval. During the break, teams will be allowed to make adjustments on their cars.
"The break will give teams, especially with this being a night race, a chance if they've missed their setups a little bit, to come in and correct that and finish out the race where they need to be," said John Darby, the Winston Cup director.
Another factor will be the smaller gas tank required by NASCAR at Daytona and Talladega to force teams to pit more often. NASCAR hopes to break up the huge, dangerous packs of cars on the big, fast tracks.
"That's where the strategic part of the Shootout will come into play," Darby said. "If we have a caution somewhere after the break, I look for everyone to come down pit road, trying to get enough fuel to make it to the end."