DAYTONA BEACH, FLA., FEB. 13 -- On the surface, today's Daytona 500 won't look much different than last year's.

Forty-two colorful stock cars will leave pit row and race around the high-banked 2.5-mile tri-oval 200 times in front of more than 100,000 fans and a national television audience (WUSA-TV-9, noon). The winner will pocket a big chunk of the richest purse in NASCAR history: $1,548,455.

But hidden underneath each hood this year is a small metal plate that limits the carburetor intake and drastically changes Daytona racing.

NASCAR mandated the plates here and at Talladega to reduce speed and enhance safety. By slowing the cars, the rule has equalized them, promoted fuel conservation and re-popularized drafting and slingshotting. Cars are running in tight single-file packs, pulling and pushing each other along for an exciting show. The cars are going about 15 mph slower than last year.

But the rule hasn't proved that slower is safer. It may, in fact, have made racing more dangerous if several multicar pileups the last few days are any indication.

"It's a whole different game out there now, and not everyone can handle it," said Dale Earnhardt, the 1987 Winston Cup Champion and winner of last Sunday's Busch Clash. "Drafting is the ticket. If you don't get a friend out there to draft with, you may as well hang it up. Guys are making mistakes and banging up their cars."

"I'm real worried about the 500 because I've seen a lot of disrespect and inexperience out there this week," said Bobby Allison, winner of Saturday's Goody's 300 and Thursday's first Twin 125-Mile Qualifying race. "Because the cars are so equal, guys are trying to get ahead by doing things they shouldn't do. They're so worried about getting caught out of line that they get too close to the next bumper."

Two of stock car racing's elder statesmen, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, spun out in the qualifying races, and made today's field only because their qualifying times earlier in the week were among the 40 best.

One driver who won't be in today's race is Tim Richmond, the fourth-winningest Winston Cup racer the last five years. He was unable to clear up controversy concerning his medical records in time for today's last practice session.

He failed a NASCAR-administered drug test Feb. 4 and was suspended indefinitely. He was reinstated two days later, after a second test he requested proved negative.

Thursday, NASCAR reported that the two substances found in his urine aren't illegal, as suspected. They were over-the-counter cold remedies (Sudafed and ibuprofen, found in Advil) and hazardous only because the amounts found were five to 20 times the usual dosage.

He and his lawyer, Barry Slotnick, said this morning that Richmond will sue NASCAR if he is not allowed to drive. He says NASCAR has picked on him because of his reputation as a "rebel."

"They never liked me because I have long hair, a beard, and I tell it like it is," he said. "But I have never done anything to hurt this sport. I didn't mind taking the test because I thought it would clear my name of all the bad rumors that have gone around lately. They're all false. I just hope I haven't been burned too bad."

In the Goody's 300, Allison, who started from the ninth position, stole the lead from Darrell Waltrip in the 118th lap and held on the last three to win the incident-filled race today.