DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Greg Biffle is the defending race champion and Jeff Gordon will start from the pole. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and winners of five of the last seven races at Daytona International Speedway, are heavy favorites in Saturday night's Pepsi 400.
"You know going in that the two DEI guys are going to be tough," Gordon said. "I want to win and I'll do everything I can to keep the competition behind me, but we can all be pretty confident that the No. 15 (Waltrip) and the No. 8 (Earnhardt) will be the guys to beat."
Defending race champion Waltrip is a powerhouse on the 2 1/2-mile oval, where he also has won two of the last three Daytona 500s. But Earnhardt is most feared here and at Talladega Superspeedway, the only tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates to keep the cars under 200 mph.
Still, it takes instinct, luck and talent to win or even contend on the plate tracks, where the competition is often two- and three-wide in huge convoys traveling at more than 190.
Earnhardt's father, a seven-time NASCAR champion killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 - seconds before Waltrip got his first career victory - won 11 plate races.
Former boss Richard Childress said The Intimidator could "see the air," referring to the currents eddying around the cars as they draft around the big tracks.
Junior, in his fifth full season in NASCAR's top series, has inherited that mantle, already winning six plate races. The most recent was in February, in the Daytona 500.
"Junior has gotten to the point where he reminds me of his dad," said Gordon, barely able to fend off Earnhardt for a victory in April at Talladega. That race ended under caution with thousands of fans throwing beer cans and seat cushions onto the track as Earnhardt crossed the finish line driving slowly behind the pace car and Gordon.
While it's obvious where the fan loyalty is, Gordon said it's harder to figure out who wants to slow Earnhardt down and who wants to work with him in the draft.
"Half the guys out there don't want to help him because they don't want to see him win because they know he's the guy to beat," Gordon said. "But half of them think he's the guy who can take them to the front and get a top five out of it.
"I know I'm going to do everything I can to keep the 15 and 8 behind me, to shuffle them out of the draft or split them up, whatever."
It won't be hard for the DEI duo to find each other, though. Waltrip will start alongside Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after qualifying second. Earnhardt will take the green flag from the fifth spot in the 43-car field.
Earnhardt won't have his 500 car. Each year the winning car is sent to the adjacent Daytona USA motorsports attraction and held until the following February.
But Earnhardt isn't worried.
"This car is going to be just as good for us this weekend," he said. "We're real happy."
Waltrip, who has four plate wins, agrees that Earnhardt should be considered the top gun here. But the younger brother of three-time series champion Darrell Waltrip goes into the 400 filled with confidence - and not just because of his past performances at Daytona.
Waltrip is one of the hottest drivers on the circuit right now. He has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts, including a second last month in Charlotte and a fourth last week on the road course in Sonoma, Calif.
"The team's got an extra bump in their step because of the performance of the NAPA Chevy over the last month," he said. "It's a good time to stop at Daytona."
And don't count out Biffle, who won the race last July by stretching his final tank of gas to the checkered flag while everyone else ran dry or had to stop for a splash.
"Yeah, I think we're going to be able to compete with them this weekend," said Biffle, the Roush Racing driver who will start ninth. "Our engines have been getting better and better and our bodies are really good, so I think we've got a pretty good car."