Byline: DON COBLE, The Times-Union
DAYTONA BEACH -- While tonight's Budweiser Shootout all-star race remains a fan favorite at the Daytona International Speedway, the importance isn't lost among the qualified drivers.
The race is open only to former all-star champions and pole winners from the 2003 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series season, but everyone in the garage area will be interested in what happens during the 70-lap dash for cash since the race is the first chance to learn what to expect for next week's Daytona 500.
Mark Martin, who will be making his 16th consecutive start in the all-star race tonight, said his team built a new car for the shootout with hopes of learning if any of its offseason changes made its Ford Taurus any faster.
"We're taking a brand new, untested car," Martin said. "We felt we could build something better than what we tested. Of all the things we learned at the test in January, we were able to put all that together and build a car off what we learned. If all things go well, we'll use the shootout car as a backup for the Daytona 500."
The race (8 p.m., TNT) features a 20-lap segment, followed by a 10-minute break and ending with a 50-lap dash. The winner is guaranteed to earn at least $210,000 from the $1.066 million purse.
Drivers, who earned their starting positions in a blind drawing late Friday, know the use of restrictor plates will reduce the importance of the starting grid. Since all cars are severely under-powered for safety reasons, the key is working through the draft -- areas of calm air that trail lead cars -- not horsepower.
A year ago Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race after starting last and Jeff Gordon finished second after starting second-to-last.
Unlike a regular season race where drivers are happy with top-five finishes, Martin said the only thing that matters is winning.
"It's an exciting race where the winner takes all, and there really isn't a prize for second," Martin said. "The bottom line is that second place is no better than 17th or 18th in the shootout, so it's not uncommon to see teams go for it all."
At the same time, the emphasis remains the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.
While the winner of the shootout will win at least $210,000, the last-place finisher in the 500 will pocket at least $177,058.
Joining Martin, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon in the all-star race will be Boris Said, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Mike Skinner, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Jeremy Mayfield, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Elliott Sadler, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Ken Schrader, Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott.
"We're in the shootout and that's real important for the 500," Schrader said. …