Simple love driving force of Daytona

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Suffice it to say that, for a substantial chunk of the country, particularly big-city northerners, the lure of the Daytona 500 makes about as much sense as the draw of the Stanley Cup for many southerners.

But as this year's edition of the biggest event in stock car racing approaches, the attraction of the 500 and NASCAR is crystal clear to Ken Squier and Ned Jarrett, who will call Sunday's race for CBS (Channel 13, noon).

"This sport, more than any other, has not lost the common touch -- its ability to understand that it's not driven by television, not driven by anything other than people who care a lot about it," said Squier. "It is a sport of common people doing uncommon things."

Said Jarrett: "We have one thing that no other sport has, and that is the automobile. I think the American people still have a love affair with the automobile."

The 9.6 rating and 26 share for last year's telecast made it the most-watched Daytona, and CBS certainly would get a Sunday ratings win if those numbers were matched or surpassed this weekend. The coverage begins with tomorrow's taped telecast of the Gatorade Twin 125s (Channel 13, 2 p.m.), which decide positions 3-30 for Sunday.

CBS, covering its 17th Daytona 500, will pull out a number of technical advances for Sunday's show. It will have a record 25 cameras posted around the 2 1/2 -mile Daytona International Speedway, including five inside the cars of defending champion Sterling Marlin, Mark Martin, Dick Trickle, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett, Ned's son, who won Daytona in 1993 and is this weekend's pole-sitter.

Joining Squier and Jarrett in the broadcast tower is Richard Petty, who will make his network debut after 35 years on the NASCAR circuit.

Petty, who took a record seven Daytona victory laps, will be looking with great interest at the fortunes of Dale Earnhardt, who will join Dale Jarrett on the front row. Earnhardt, like Petty, has won seven Winston Cup titles, but is winless at Daytona in 16 tries.

"Earnhardt's been first or second on the last lap the last couple of times, but things haven't worked out," said Petty. "He's been capable of winning five or six of these things, but the circumstances haven't been right."

Weekend items of note

Sunday's hoop choice could be difficult. At 1 p.m., Channel 11 has the defending NBA champion Houston Rockets meeting the New York Knicks, whom they beat last June for the title. Thirty minutes later, the Maryland men meet Cincinnati at San Antonio on Channel 2.

NBC (Channel 11) has fourth- and fifth-round coverage of the Bob Hope Classic golf tournament tomorrow and Sunday at 3:30. The HBO fight of the month pits Oscar De La Hoya against Juan "John John" Molina in a lightweight bout tomorrow night at 10.

Finally, let us pray to the deity of choice that Deion Sanders' stint as host of "Saturday Night Live" (11:30 p.m., Channel 11) is the last we see of either entity.

Alas, not all prayers are answered.

February ratings stunt, part II

Two weeks ago, Channel 11 trudged out celebrity sportscasters on its 11 p.m. news to usher in sweeps month. Not to be outdone, Channel 13 fires back with a contest designed to send a lucky viewer to the men's Final Four in Seattle.

The folks at WJZ hope you'll watch "Eyewitness News" at 6 each night through next Thursday for a college basketball trivia question, tune in again at 11 p.m. for the answer, then collect the six answers on a postcard and mail it in. Runners-up will receive a pair of tickets to one of the three NCAA tournament sessions at the Baltimore Arena next month.

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