The roulette wheel that is Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sunday's 55th running of the Daytona 500 features both a favorite and a darling, but neither is likely to win the race.

That's not just because Kevin Harvick has placed himself in a favorite's role that often arises but has never been fulfilled. He has swept two preliminary races, showing he has the strongest car and the skills for the current conditions, but no one has ever gone on to complete "the triple" of Speedweeks.

And the unlikelihood of a storybook winner isn't just because Danica Patrick, even as the first woman ever to start on the pole for NASCAR's biggest race, simply hasn't swum enough with the sharks in the swirling drafts and engine-stifling restrictor-plate traffic jams of Daytona.

It's more that this race, now renowned as America's greatest with the decline in prestige of the Indianapolis 500, has become such a de facto roulette wheel.

"It's a different world," said Richard Petty, who won this race more than any other driver, seven times, back when it really was a race. "I just see it more as a plain old gamble now."

That's why Harvick isn't touting his performance so far as an indicator, why he'll ride the roulette wheel knowing, as he said, "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the team and the car to be in contention."

But from there, enormous luck is needed. 'Round and 'round and 'round they go, and scramble, and at the checkered flag, "in the right place at the right time with the right circumstances, you can win the race," Petty said.

Patrick, after winning the pole last Sunday with a lap at 196.434 mph in a Tony Stewart-owned Chevrolet, was ultracautious in her 150-mile Duel and wound up a lackluster 17th. On the preliminary roulette wheel, Patrick didn't want to wreck her car. If she were to need to use a backup car for the 500, she'd have to start at the back of the field.

"It's not an exciting mission when you've just got to bring it home," she said of her Duel. "We just wanted to make sure we got it [or kept it] on that front row for Sunday."

Fabulous as a Daytona 500 win by her would be for NASCAR, it's highly unlikely. There'll be just too many veterans of drafting and restrictor-plate racing in pursuit of her from the green flag on.

Should she lead a lap or more, she would join some interesting company of drivers who have led both the Daytona 500 and Indy 500: Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Bobby Allison, Tim Richmond, Johnny Rutherford, Robby Gordon and John Andretti.

If she could somehow keep herself in the lead drafting pack for the final scramble, the craziness of this race might present her with a shot.

"Back in the day," said Petty, "there were usually three or four cars, or really just a couple of cars, involved in the last-lap deal [the shootout for the win]. Like Cale [Yarborough] and Donnie [Allison] in '79." Those two leaders crashed each other and fought afterward, leaving Petty to win.

Even more notoriously, Petty and David Pearson crashed with the checkered flag in sight in 1976, and Pearson nursed a wrecked car across the line to win, leaving Petty with this autobiographical summary: "With all the races I won down here, I'm remembered most for one I lost."

Those were duels between the strongest cars at the end. These are scrambles with contenders numbering in the double digits in the waning laps.

"Now," said Petty, "you can be running seventh or eighth, and if somebody screws up up front, you can win the race. Or, you can be running first and you can wind up seventh or eighth."

This time might not be quite as kaleidoscopic as in recent years because thus far in Speedweeks, NASCAR's new Gen-6 car design has not shown to be much of a scrambler in the drafting lines.

With some aerodynamic teething pains yet to be tweaked in the regulations, the Gen-6 has made it harder to wrest the lead from the leader. Harvick dominated last Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited bonus race, then cruised comfortably up front to win his half of the 150-mile Duels on Thursday. Jeff Gordon was off on an even breezier cakewalk in the other Duel before he was nailed with a pit-road speeding penalty that left the win to Kyle Busch.

So Sunday, Patrick and Jeff Gordon will start on the front row by virtue of their time trial speeds, with Harvick and Busch on the next row by virtue of their wins in the 150-milers.
But the top four are highly unlikely to remain there for long on the roulette wheel that the Daytona 500 has become.

The way Petty won seven of these, "I looked at that as racing," he said. "Now they just run."

However they do it, in whichever world, whatever number the ball stops on, this remains the singular event of NASCAR and really of all motor racing in North America: the Daytona 500.