Daytona Beach, Fla. -- Al Unser Jr. likes to tell people that he's 5 feet 10 and 150 pounds. In fact, he's probably an inch, maybe 2, shorter and about 10 pounds heavier. But when he says he absolutely loves race cars, anyone who knows him can't doubt his word.
Midgets, sprints, snowmobiles, Indy cars, IROC cars. Name the car, and Unser loves it. Anything with an engine, he'll race -- fearlessly.
When he was about to step into his first Indy car in 1982, he was just a little unsure.
"My dad [four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser] saw my nervousness," Al Jr. said. "He put his arm around me and told me: 'A race car is a race car, and that Indy car is nothing but a race car.' It calmed me down, and that's how I've looked at race cars ever since. If it has a motor in it, I want to drive it and I want to win in it."
Some other IndyCar drivers might have gone home and sulked in the off-season after being unable to put together a deal to drive Formula One cars, but Unser went home and literally jumped for joy when he was asked if he'd like to drive a Rick Hendrick-owned stock car in the Daytona 500.
It's rare for IndyCar drivers to be competitive in the Daytona 500. In 1963, Johnny Rutherford sat on the pole. In 1967, Mario Andretti won the race. In 1972, A. J. Foyt won it.
Since then, 14 other IndyCar drivers have raced in it, but none of them has been close. In the history of this race, only two drivers -- Lee Petty in the first race in 1959 and Pete Hamilton in 1970 -- have won it in their first try.
"What an opportunity," said Unser. "I didn't go to Formula One racing, frankly, because I couldn't get a competitive ride. I wouldn't be in Daytona if it wasn't a competitive ride. But I'm going to run in the Daytona 500 in a Rick Hendrick car with Waddell Wilson as my crew chief, and that means I'm going to be running in the Daytona 500 with a chance to win. I couldn't be more excited."
The excitement was curtailed only slightly last weekend, when his car was found to be illegal for being too low to the ground. When the Hendrick team got the car up to the proper height, it had lost 2 mph and had a bad run during pole-day qualifying. But the team hoped to have the problem solved by the time the Twin 125-mile qualifying races are run today.
"Since Saturday, we've been working on trying to get Al more comfortable with the car, and we're going pretty good right now," said Wilson, Unser's crew chief. "We think the 125s will be OK. The only hazard is if we wreck. We don't want any wrecks."
If Unser does crash early in his segment of the 125-miler, he will have to stand on his qualifying time of 186.749 (37th overall), which Wilson said "should get us into the field, no problem."
Unser is able to be here because testing for the IndyCar season doesn't begin until late February. That opened this window for Unser, who will be driving Car No. 46.
"I don't know what it takes to win the Daytona 500, but I know you have to be driving at the finish to have a chance, so that's what we're going to try to do," Unser said. "But I also know only one way to drive a race car, and that means if there's a hole, we're going to dive into it."
Those could be frightening words from a Winston Cup rookie -- and that's what Unser is at Daytona. He has a rookie's yellow bumper on his Chevrolet Lumina, and he's been attending the rookie orientation meetings held by NASCAR. But Unser, the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, is not just any rookie.
Unser will be the only driver in the field Sunday with the possibility of winning Indy and the Daytona 500 back to back. And despite history, no one is counting him out.
When Junior Johnson is asked for a list of drivers who could make an immediate transition from Indy cars to Winston Cup cars or vice versa, it is a very short list. Only one name appears: Al Unser Jr.
When Hendrick talked about his decision to expand his three-car team to four for this race, he said he wouldn't have done it for
just any driver.
"There are maybe four or five pure, natural drivers in the entire world," Hendrick said. "And Al's name is on the list. Oval, super speedway, he's had experience on those kinds of racetracks. I don't look at this as a dangerous situation in which my equipment or the equipment of other competitors in this race is at risk. Al always finishes well, and Waddell is known to be a believer in designing a car that is capable of getting to the finish line. I think we've got a real chance at winning."
In fact, Unser's crew chief says rookie may not be the best term to describe Unser at Daytona.