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Schrader's challenge: Pass 40 cars in 500 miles

If Kenny Schrader can survive the company in which he finds himself shortly after noon today, he may yet win the Daytona 500. Before he can do that, though, he'll spend some time looking ahead _ way ahead _ at Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty and the rest of the boys. And in this era of "restrictor-plate racing," with the horsepower cut back to keep the cars on the track, it may take a while for Schrader to get out of harm's way and into contention for a payday of more than $400,000.

The back of the pack is where the rookies and the slowpokes (relatively speaking) reside. Schrader faces the very real danger of tangling with the Hut Stricklins, Jerry O'Neils and Eddie Bierschwales _ the afterthoughts of this race.

Schrader, last year's runnerup, and Earnhardt, who finished third a year ago, would have been co-favorites to win this race had they started side-by-side in their Chevrolet Luminas, which picked up last year where the Chevy Monte Carlos left off in dominating the Winston Cup circuit.

But Schrader crashed last Thursday and chose to withdraw his damaged qualifying car, enter a substitute car and, under NASCAR rules, move to the rear of the field. He's starting 41st out of 42. "If we do real good, we made the right decision," Schrader said. "If we get caught up in one of those accidents we would have missed by being up front, then we did wrong."

Whoever wins today will earn about $200,000 from the $2.1-million purse. If it's Schrader, he'll also receive a $212,800 bonus for winning both the pole and the race.

Behind him at the start, and for the first 100 miles, will be two cars being used in the filming of the Tom Cruise Movie Days of Thunder. They won't be competing for money or points. They won't be anything but highly visible. Look for the black-and-yellow No.51 and the blue-and-orange No.18.

But concentrate on Earnhardt, on the outside of row 1, and Geoff Bodine, on the pole in a Ford Thunderbird. Schrader will be looking for them.

"I hope to come through the pack as quick as I can," he said. He can get through the first half of it with relative ease, accidents notwithstanding ("Everybody from 39 on up is a potential hazard," he said), but once Schrader gets in the company of the contenders, he won't be able to blow by them. Not the way he could have three years ago, before NASCAR cut back speeds, making drafting and strategy a necessity.

There was a time when a driver in the draft _ the vacuum of the car ahead _ could pull out of line and slingshot ahead with a burst of power. Now a driver who pulls out can find himself out on a limb and drifting back, unable to pass and unable to slip back in line.

Waltrip was the master of the draft last year, playing the fuel to perfection, winning virtually on fumes after Schrader pitted for a late splash of gas. If he is running anywhere near the end of today's race, Waltrip will earn the $12,859 that will make him the first driver ever to earn $10-million in a career.

"If he drags around this year like he did last year, he may find himself lapped," said Earnhardt, who vowed to drive hard from start to finish. His strategy: "Just clean the windshield, give me some water, put on some fresh tires and hold the pedal to the floor."

Bill Elliott, who dominated Winston Cup racing in the mid-'80s the way Petty did in the mid-'60s, is hoping to bury the memory of last year's Daytona 500, when he broke his left wrist in practice.

And the 52-year-old Petty is hoping to revive the memories of a decade or more ago. King Richard, whose father, Lee, won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, has won this race seven times, the last in 1981. He hasn't won any Winston Cup races since posting No.200 in 1984.

But with savvy and better equipment than he's had in recent years, Petty nearly won one of last Thursday's qualifying races before finishing fifth.

Bodine and Earnhardt marveled at his performance, how talk of his retirement had been entirely premature.

"Well," King Richard said with his characteristic drawl, "they can talk like they don't mind seeing me run good for one race, but when it's regular they probably won't be talking about me that way. I've been doing this long enough that they were kids when I was running and I'm still here and they're not kids anymore. So I guess they want to see me run good once or twice, but they might not want to see me do good every time."