Daytona Beach, Fla. — No other sport begins its season with its biggest event, but NASCAR's drivers wouldn't have it any other way.
The Daytona 500 is more important -- and more appreciated -- than ever.
"We spend all winter preparing for it and, if it's not the biggest, somebody needs to stop by and tell us," said Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth last year. "It's the first race, it's got all the hype, all the prestige and the most money."
Harvick, along with defending champion Michael Waltrip and the rest of the Nextel Cup drivers, will begin practice today for the Feb. 15 season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
With a new points format for 2004, dividing the year into a 26-race regular season and a 10-race championship shootout, there was some concern that the Great American Race might lose some of its luster.
The drivers say no way.
"When you win this race, you know you've beaten the best," Elliott Sadler said. "Everybody brings the best of everything they've got to this racetrack.
"That doesn't happen at any other race. ... Here, the equipment is new, the uniforms are new. It's a great way to start the season off."
Jeff Burton said having the biggest race of the year leading off the schedule never made sense to him until after NASCAR announced the new points format.
"In every other sport, their biggest event of the year is their last event," Burton said. "Look at how many people watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. Even my wife watched the Super Bowl.
"But, in today's format, it's my opinion that the Daytona 500 is certainly the biggest race of the year, although it may not be the most important race of the year. Now we have a system that may make the last race of the year the most important. But not the biggest."
No one doubts the prestige of winning the Daytona 500.
"This race can save your career," Sadler said. "This race can make your career go to the next step."
Just ask three-time winner Dale Jarrett, who shot to stardom after beating Dale Earnhardt in a head-to-head duel in the 1993 Daytona 500.
Jarrett has gone on to a great career, highlighted by winning two more of the 500-milers here (1996 and 2000) as well as the 1999 Cup championship.
"Winning this race opens doors for you," the second-generation Cup driver said. "Winning that first one meant everything to me, to my family and to my career. Nothing has changed. It's still the big one."
Reigning Cup champion Matt Kenseth likes the historical perspective.
"Daytona is where NASCAR is and where it all started," Kenseth said. "There's so much hype and so much history that goes with the Daytona 500. I think it's good to start off big and let everybody know that the season's starting."
The bottom line, though, is that, going into the 46th running of the big event, it is still the race the drivers want most to win.
"This is the one that we're all shooting for, the one we put the most effort into," Harvick said. "The Nextel championship comes first, but this is by far the biggest race that we can win."