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Near perfection needed at Daytona 500

Perfection may be something to be sought and never to be found.

Still, winning the 40th running of Sunday's Daytona 500, NASCAR's richest and most prestigious event, may take near perfection."Everybody's stuff is equal," said Sterling Marlin, who won in 1994 and 1995. "It'll take a perfect day to win the race.

"It's all getting in position. You've got to be at the right place at the right time with the right people. You can have a fast car and run 10th. You ain't going to pull away."

Marlin, who moved to struggling Team Sabco over the winter, has made the team owned by Felix Sabates a legitimate contender, a fact clearly shown by his solid victory in one of Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway.

But Marlin attributes the win that earned him a second-row start on Sunday to circumstances and luck.

He passed Dale Jarrett, another two-time Daytona winner, for second place moments before leader Jeff Gordon chose to pit for tires under a caution flag. That put him in front and Marlin was able to keep his Chevrolet Monte Carlo ahead of Jarrett's Ford Taurus the rest of the way.

But Marlin is only one of perhaps a dozen solid contenders.

Of that group, the sentimental favorite is clearly seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

The Intimidator has come close, finishing second four times and twice leading to the last lap. But he is 0-19 in NASCAR's richest and most prestigious event, the one major stock car race he has never won.

"You guys would probably be pretty happy not to have to ask me if I'm ever going to win the Daytona 500," Earnhardt said with a grimace. "I'd be real happy not to have to answer that again."

This could finally be the year for the 46-year-old second-generation racer. But there are plenty of other good stories lurking out there on the 43-car grid for Sunday's 40th annual Winston Cup season-opener.

Brothers Bobby and Terry Labonte will be at the head of the field when the green flag waves.

For pole-winner Bobby, the victory would be the biggest moment of his still budding career and a huge win for Pontiac, which has struggled in the stock car series in recent years.

Terry, like Earnhardt, has come tantalizingly close, taking the runner-up spot three times. But he too is 0-19.

"Terry looks like the guy to beat," Earnhardt said. "He's been fast since they took his car off the truck, and he's acting real confident."

Always a contender at Daytona in his short career is Gordon, the defending race winner and also the defending Winston Cup champion.

But if the 26-year-old repeats his win of last year, it will be against the odds.

He will start 29th. Since nobody has won from further back than 12th since 1980, it would seem Gordon's task is unenviable.

"For me, starting where I am, I'm going to have to have everything go my way to get it done," Gordon said. "It seems like these days you need a perfect day to win every race. But Daytona is even tougher because the cars are so close."

Jarrett, starting fifth, and Rusty Wallace, 12th, probably have the best chance to put Ford's new Taurus - the replacement for the discontinued Thunderbird - into Victory Circle on Sunday.

"I'm happier than I was at the first of the week," Jarrett said after finishing second in his 125-miler. "If we can do that much more until Sunday, we'll be in good shape. We've got a few adjustments to make, but we're going to be OK."

Wallace, who is 0-15 in the 500, said, "We can win this race, I know we can. The car will race good. But we're going to have to have some help and, man, we're going to have about a perfect race."