There will be significant changes at this year's Daytona Supercross when, for the first time in the 33-year history of the esteemed event, it will be held under lights on Friday evening, March 5, on the grueling Gary Bailey-designed circuit.

Among other changes this year is the fact that four-time and defending Daytona winner Ricky Carmichael (top pic) will not be in the field. The three-time AMA Supercross Series champ had knee surgery this winter and is sitting out the entire Supercross season.

While Carmichael is out, rising Supercross star James Stewart will make his much anticipated debut at Daytona in the 125 East race - and fans' favourite Travis Pastrana may make his series comeback in the 250cc class.

Holding the Daytona Supercross without Ricky Carmichael is like having the Masters Golf Tournament without Tiger Woods. The absence of Carmichael presents a fantastic opportunity for the other riders in the 250 field.

With Carmichael expected to return to Daytona next year and the addition of James Stewart to 250 class in 2005 as well, many think this will be the best opportunity for a new rider to win the Daytona Supercross for many years to come.

Yamaha's Chad Reed comes into this year's race the favorite. Daytona marked a turning point for Reed last year. After being trounced by Carmichael in the race last year, Reed rededicated himself to a tougher training regimen.

The results were spectacular. The Aussie went on to close out the second half of 2003 with six-straight AMA Supercross wins and pushed Carmichael in the series points chase to the final round. That momentum has carried over to this season. He comes into Daytona with six wins in the nine previous rounds of the 16-race series and has built a 26-point lead over Factory Connection Honda's Kevin Windham.

Reed is taking nothing for granted: "I need to get a streak going here," said the 2003 Daytona Supercross runner-up. "I know I have a decent points lead, but you can never have enough."

Reed is hoping to give Yamaha its first win in the Daytona Supercross since the legendary Jeremy McGrath won on a Yamaha in 1999.

For his part, Windham is looking to Daytona as an opportunity to try to gain on Reed: "I'm definitely excited about Daytona this year," he said. "It's obviously a very "outdoorsy" type of Supercross track. Last year my return to motocross was just awesome and I'm looking forward to the mix of Supercross and Motocross Daytona gives you."

While the focus will be on Reed and Windham in the 250 final, others point to Mike LaRocco or David Vuillemin as possible dark horse candidates to win this year's race.

LaRocco has been racing at Daytona since 1989 and has earned five podium finishes, including a pair of runner-up results. Vuillemin is looking to make a strong comeback after being injured at Daytona last year. The Frenchman was third in his debut at the track in 2000.

Meanwhile, Suzuki team manager Roger DeCoster confirmed on Tuesday that Pastrana is testing in Florida, and could race in the 250 class at Daytona having previously announced his comeback event to be at St. Louis on March 13.

The determination if Travis will race will be based on how the Freestyle ace feels after testing. It would mark Pastrana's first race after suffering a reoccurring knee injury almost a year ago.

The big story in the 125 East race at Daytona is the first appearance of James Stewart. The 18-year-old racing phenom from the Central Florida farming community of Haines City is considered the fastest rising star in the sport. He's looking forward to racing for the first time in the Daytona Supercross. He's sure to have a legion of friends and family at the race.

"Everybody and their brother are calling me asking for tickets to Daytona," Stewart quipped. "I told them they're on their own. I can barely get in the place myself!"

Stewart, last year's 125 West champ, is trying to become only the second rider in the history of AMA Supercross to win the 125 East and West titles. He's started the year off right with three wins in three starts coming into the Daytona round. He broke Jeremy McGrath's AMA 125 Supercross win record at the Atlanta Supercross last week.