Thanks to a major change in eligibility standards, the field for Saturday's Budweiser Shootout will be the largest ever, with seven cars from each of the four NASCAR Sprint Cup manufacturers set to take the green flag at Daytona International Speedway.

Shootout rookie Paul Menard will lead the non-points, season-opening field to the start, with Elliott Sadler beside him on the outside of the front row, after starting positions were determined by a draw on Thursday night, but the driver who considers himself the odds-on choice to win the race will start ninth.

"I think I am the man to beat," claims Dale Earnhardt Jr, who won the Shootout last year in his first start in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, "I thought I was pretty good at it.

"They have put more cars in the race, which makes it more of a challenge. It sort of lessens everyone's odd a little bit, so it's going to be quite a challenge. You just have to put yourself in the right position at the end. I feel like I know what to do."

Before this year, the Shootout field consisted primarily of pole winners from the previous season and former winners of the race. With Coors Light having taken over sponsorship of the Cup pole award from Budweiser, however, Anheuser-Busch, which brews Budweiser, preferred a qualifying format that broke the link between pole winners and the Shootout.

Accordingly, the new format places greater emphasis on the manufacturers. Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and Toyota each have six entries - the top six eligible cars based on 2008 owner points - plus one 'wild card', either a past Cup champion or the seventh-place car from the manufacturer.

Three-time Shootout winner Tony Stewart, who switched from a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to his own Stewart-Haas Chevrolet, gets into the field as Chevrolet's past champion. Robby Gordon will run the Shootout in the #7 Dodge, which is eligible for the race based on 2008 owner points, before switching to Toyota for the rest of the season. Both full-time Cup rookies, Scott Speed and Joey Logano - both running Toyotas - also benefited from the new eligibility rules and will start the race from the fourth and 19th positions respectively.

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service

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