DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Bud Shootout is supposed to be for fun, fans and, of course, a little money.
Those driving Chevrolets in the race Sunday may feel differently.
A significant design change in the Monte Carlos has turned the season-opening, 25-lap exhibition into an important practice session for the upcoming Daytona 500, Feb. 20.
"There were a lot of changes," said Jeff Gordon, the most successful Chevrolet driver over the past five years. "There are a lot of people who are eager to get some time on the cars."
Gordon will start sixth in the 15-car field that consists of pole winners from last year's Winston Cup races. There are six Monte Carlos in the field.
Mark Martin won the pole position Thursday by picking the lucky lizard in a blind draw of plastic reptiles -- remember Louie, the Budweiser lizard? -- with numbers inked on their bellies.
Martin will sit behind the wheel of his Ford Taurus for just the second time since offseason back surgery. The 1999 season was a year of pain for the veteran, who continued driving despite suffering a broken wrist and knee in a crash last July during a practice session at Daytona. Those injuries came on top of the herniated discs that have plagued him for years.
Martin says he's back to full health. Still, as much as anyone, he needs this race to see how well-prepared he is for the season.
"I'm willing to give everything I have, just like I always did before," Martin said. "It's hard to speculate at this point. I know I'm in a whole lot better condition to drive a race car now than I was a year ago."
Martin won the race and the $100,000 first-place prize last year, even though he started from the 13th spot. The year before, he won the pole and finished eighth.
He knows the race is more spectacle than sport, a chance for NASCAR to provide fans with a quick appetizer for the real race seven days later.
"I'd love to tell you I was real good last year, real skillful in everything I did," Martin said. "But the truth is, I was lucky. It's not a big strategy race, not a big driver-skill race or anything else. It has everything to do with the way Winston Cup kicks off its schedule and treats its fans."
Still, there are lessons to be learned.
Ford also made some minor changes to the Tauruses, although the changes in the Monte Carlos have caused more of a stir.
Gordon has not only a new chassis, but a new crew chief and revamped pit crew to work with, as he prepares the run for his fourth series championship in six years.
"We might not come out of the box as fast as it would normally be," Gordon said. "But it's going to come together."
He figures it's just a matter of time, which is at a premium in the Bud Shootout. Under rules adopted last season, the shootout is a 25-lap race with a mandatory two-tire pit stop somewhere between laps 10-12.
Starting next to Martin will be Sterling Marlin. Last year's top rookie, Tony Stewart, shares the second row with Ward Burton. Mike Skinner will start next to Gordon.
The 15th and final spot will go to the winner of a qualifying race. Participants in that race are last year's top second-day qualifiers. Among that field is defending series champion Dale Jarrett, who survived quite well despite not winning a pole last year.
"Sometimes that just doesn't happen," he said. "But it wasn't something on our mind all year. You just go out and get your car the best you can before qualifying. If it happens, it happens. It's not something we feel is a huge part to win the championship."
Missing from both fields is Dale Earnhardt, who has won six Bud Shootouts, but didn't post any top qualifying efforts last year.
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