DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Young guns or old hands, it doesn't really matter: the 2003 Winston Cup season is going to be a shootout.
With the days counting down to the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 16, no less than a dozen drivers have high hopes of snatching NASCAR's most prestigious stock car title from reigning champion Tony Stewart.
From the preseason talk, it seems that just about every driver in the series considers himself a top-10 contender.
''I guess everybody is saying the same thing right now: 'We can win a race and finish in the top 10,''' four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. ''Heck, I'm sure they believe it. With the way this thing is shaping up, the competition is going to be even closer than it was last year.''
In 36 races last year, 18 drivers won at least once, including five first-time winners. No positions in the top 10 in the points standings were decided until the final race.
The tight competition likely will be enhanced by NASCAR's adoption of some basic templates that must fit all makes of cars entered in its top stock car series. That means the cars will be more alike than ever before.
Last season was a rollercoaster for Stewart, who fought back from a blown engine on the second lap of the Daytona 500 and overcame off-track problems with his temper to win the championship.
His final margin over four-time series runner-up Mark Martin was only 38 points.
Stewart is hoping 2003 will be a ''very uneventful, unemotional year.''
''I just want to defend my championship, win more than the three races we won last year, and have some fun,'' Stewart said.
Despite all that drama, perhaps the biggest story of 2002 was the continuing saga of the ''young guns,'' a gang of twentysomething sharpshooters.
Stewart started the trend in 1999 at age 28, winning an unprecedented three races and finishing fourth in the points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth also became winners and immediate stars in 2000, as did Kevin Harvick in 2001.
Last season, it was Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson who raised the bar as rookies. Newman, 24, won once, finished in the top 10 in 22 of 36 races, and was fourth in points as he took Rookie of the Year honors.
Johnson, 27, won three times, had 21 top-10 finishes, became the first rookie in modern times to lead the points, and wound up sixth.
''Some of it is coming in with really good equipment and really good teams,'' said Sterling Marlin, a 45-year-old graybeard who led the points for 25 weeks last year and was still in the title battle when he crashed late in the season and broke a vertebra in his neck.
Marlin was replaced by 26-year-old Jamie McMurray, who shocked the racing world by winning in his second Winston Cup start. McMurray and 24-year-old Casey Mears will join Marlin as full-time teammates this season.
The M&M boys are expected to battle for top rookie honors, along with Greg Biffle, 33, another Roush driver and the reigning Busch Series champion.
Any look ahead at the new season would be less than complete without mentioning how Roush Racing became a juggernaut in 2002 and could be even better this season.
Martin had a great year, earning his fourth runner-up finish, and young teammates Kenseth and Kurt Busch established themselves as likely title contenders this year.
The 24-year-old Busch won three of the last five races and vaulted from 12th to third in the standings in the last eight weeks.
''The biggest key is we had everything rolling in our direction,'' Busch said. ''Last year exceeded our expectations just because of the dismal rookie year I had (in 2001).''
''There's no reason, though, that we can't start the season just like we ended last year. All the pieces are still there.''
Kenseth, 30, led everyone with five wins in 2002 and finished a career-best eighth in the points.
Some of the veterans, of course, can't be counted out.
Gordon, 31, faded at the end of the season after working his way into contention for a fifth title in 10 years. Martin, former champions Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett, along with Ricky Rudd, who all are over 40, finished in the top 10 and figure to remain in the hunt for several years to come.
''I don't know about those other guys, but I'm not giving those guys anything,'' said 46-year-old Wallace. ''I know how good my teammate (Newman) is and some of those other guys, too, but some of us old guys still have some life in us.''
Wallace, whose Penske Racing team is switching from Ford to Dodge, has some added motivation after failing to win a race last year. He won at least once in each of the preceding 16 seasons.
The biggest driver change this year is Rudd switching rides with 27-year-old Elliott Sadler. Rudd joins the Wood Brothers, while Sadler goes to Robert Yates Racing as Jarrett's teammate.
''It's a great opportunity for me,'' Sadler said. ''This team is a proven winner with great cars and engines, and I can't wait to get started.''
Unlike other years, there is no clear-cut favorite heading into Daytona, thanks to some major equipment changes that added another factor to the equation.
Chevrolet and Pontiac are introducing new versions of their Monte Carlo and Grand Prix models, with Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte switching from Pontiac to Chevy.
Dodge, which had no drivers in the top 10 at the end of the year, is determined to improve and has helped its effort by getting Newman and Wallace into its lineup.
NASCAR has been criticized in recent years for its frequent aerodynamic rules changes to try to create parity on the track, but the latest effort may actually get the job done.
All of the entries -- Chevrolet, Ford, Pontiac or Dodge -- must now fit 18 of 32 templates, meaning that the general shape of most of the cars will be the same.
''There are many standardized areas of development now,'' said Doug Duchardt, NASCAR general manager for GM Racing. ''But there's still a huge difference -- more than I expected -- between makes.''
Duchardt said the fabricators can still find an edge working on the areas of the cars not dictated by the so-called ''common templates.''
Those areas include the front and rear fascias, the hood, the wheel openings, the sides of the car, excluding the doors, and the window trim lines, excluding the windshield.
''The brand characteristics will still be there. The fans will still be able to tell a Dodge from a Chevrolet or a Ford,'' said John Fernandez, new head of Dodge Motorsports.
Virtually all the drivers agree, though, that the new aerodynamic rules will level the competition even more.
''Just look at the numbers,'' said Kyle Petty, driver and CEO of the Petty Enterprises team. ''In testing at Daytona, there was about three-tenths of a second between fifth and 30th.
''NASCAR did a great job taking the aero side of the equation out of it and it's going to make competition tougher, but the cream will still rise to the top, like it always does.''
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