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2012 Daytona 500: Ranking the Teams for the Great American Race

Stix SymmondsCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2012

2012 Daytona 500: Ranking the Teams for the Great American Race

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    While NASCAR may technically be an individual sport, there are few tracks on the circuit that require teamwork more than Daytona. With such reliance on drafting partners, there's just no winning Daytona without some help.

    With that in mind, which teams have the strongest chance of putting one of their drivers in Victory Lane Sunday?

    To bear down on such a ranking, a few rules would have to be put in place. What criteria should be used? Past wins in the Great American Race? Certainly.

    Drivers with wins in the Daytona 500? Absolutely.

    I'll also look at how the current drivers performed last year on restrictor plate tracks, in both qualifying and finishes.

    And yes, I'll restrict this to multi-car teams. I realize full well that Trevor Bayne won last year while driving for single-car team Woods Brothers and drivers like Regan Smith (Furniture Row Racing) have had strong success at such tracks.

    However, the bigger teams have a distinct advantage on virtually any track and no less so at Daytona. The information they can share only adds to the natural alliances they can form on the track.

    With all of that in mind, which team has the best chance of having one of their drivers hoist the most coveted trophy outside of the series championship?

13. Tommy Baldwin Racing

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    Drivers: No. 10 Danica Patrick, No. 36 Dave Blaney

    It's certainly not impossible for a Tommy Baldwin driver to end up in Victory Lane (or circle), but it's not that likely either.

    In case there's some confusion about Patrick's inclusion on this team as opposed to Stewart-Haas Racing, she's officially listed as driving for Tommy Baldwin thanks to a deal struck with Stewart-Haas. While her future may lay with Smoke's crew, this season is under a different banner, technically speaking.

    At any rate, Patrick comes in as a rookie. Her NASCAR experiences are thus far limited to partial seasons run at the Nationwide level. Different cars and different drivers make for a very different experience.

    Plus, the focus of the season appears to be largely centered around Patrick gaining experience for future seasons, rather than expecting huge results at this level. It's all about seat time, and I would expect that she'll take appropriate advantage of the situation.

    Not that Patrick isn't a competitive person or that she will sacrifice a possible win for the simple sake of gaining experience, but even her team isn't really expecting her to go out and compete for checkered flags right away.

    As for Blaney, he's a good driver, but not necessarily a restrictor plate ace. He did finish third in the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega last fall, but he came in 26th in the Daytona 500 and finished 39th in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July.

    His best qualifying effort at the big tracks last year was 35th (Aaron's 499 at Talladega in the spring).

    There's just not enough experience or quality results from the drivers to expect anything fantastic out of Baldwin's stables this year.

12. BK Racing

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    Drivers: No. 83 Landon Cassill, No. 93 David Reutimann

    You may recognize these car numbers as having recently belonged to Red Bull Racing. That's because BK Racing bought the parts and pieces of the now-defunct NASCAR operation and is fielding its own team with the hardware.

    Landon Cassill is a real potential talent and possible rising star, but he's very inexperienced. This will be Cassill's first full season at the Cup level, running with a team that is somewhat underfunded compared to the big operations we'll talk about later.

    He did run the Aaron's 499 and Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega last year and was in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona last July. His best finish on those tracks was 16th at 'Dega last fall, and he did get a quality sixth in the Aaron's 499.

    That's enough to help propel this team slightly ahead of Tommy Baldwin's team, despite poor stats for the July race at Daytona and a failure to participate in last year's Daytona 500. Plus, we can't forget...

    David Reutimann didn't exactly have a fantastic year on the big tracks last year, but he's not that bad on restrictor plate tracks. He started and finished 14th in the Aaron's 499 and finished 13th in the Good Sam Club 500 last fall.

    Unfortunately, he didn't have a good year at Daytona last year.

    It will be interesting to see what BK does with the former Red Bull equipment, but I wouldn't expect big things out of them in the Daytona 500.

11. Richard Petty Motorsports

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    Drivers: No. 9 Marcos Ambrose, No. 43 Aric Almirola

    When you're talking Daytona, there's no name more historic or respected than Richard Petty. Heck, when you're talking stock car racing of any kind, "The King" is the standard upon which any driver or fan measures success.

    Under the banner Petty Enterprises, the Petty name has a record nine Daytona 500 victories. Unfortunately, the last time a Petty car won the Great American Race was back in 1981 when the King himself piloted the legendary No. 43 to the checkered flag.

    Since then, the company has gone through some pretty hard times and more than a little reorganizing. It's just not the same Petty program that was so dominant in the 1970's (and earlier).

    Having said that, this program isn't completely out of the hunt for a return to Daytona prominence.

    Marcos Ambrose didn't have a great year on the big tracks last year, but it wasn't horrible either. He did come away with a 17th-place finish in the July Daytona race and finished inside the Top 20 at the Talladega fall race.

    The Tazmanian Devil is a wild card on any given week in the NASCAR circuit and has had some pretty decent runs here and there. It's questionable as to whether he's truly comfortable enough in these cars to keep his ride in one piece for 500 white-knuckle miles, but he's an exciting driver that's undoubtedly hungry to get a big win.

    The real unknown in the stables might be Aric Almirola taking over the reigns of the icon No. 43 machine. Almirola last drove in the Sprint Cup Series in 2010, where he picked up a top five finish in nine starts.

    He has a history with Petty Motorsports, filling in for Kasey Kahne in the past. His performance during that time frame was a big reason behind Petty tabbing him to pilot their second car.

    While Almirola is an interesting talent, Ambrose will likely be carrying the hopes of the team into Daytona.

10. NEMCO Motorsports

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    Drivers: No. 87 Joe Nemechek, No. 97 Bill Elliott

    NEMCO went with a couple of tried-and-true NASCAR names. "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" and wily ol' Joe have been around this sport for quite a while.

    Elliott has a pair of Daytona 500 wins to his credit, both under the Melling Racing banner. He knows this track and has gone toe-to-toe with the best of them many times.

    However, the last time Bill held a Daytona 500 trophy was back in 1987. He hasn't exactly been a force on the circuit in quite some time.

    Neither has Joe Nemechek, who has never won the Great American Race. On the big tracks last year, Joe finished no better than 30th (Coke Zero 400 at Daytona). He qualified no better than 22nd (Aaron's 499).

    Elliott did finish 12th at last year's Daytona 500 and has enough experience at this track that he could return to the front if the garage support is right.

    I wouldn't expect it, but I wouldn't completely dismiss it either. These two guys are veterans of the biz and could just be the right combination to help propel NEMCO into the NASCAR spotlight.

9. Front Row Motorsports

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    Drivers: No. 26 Tony Raines, No. 34 David Ragan, No. 38 David Gilliland

    This could be a real dark-horse team in NASCAR's biggest race.

    Tony Raines hasn't had much of a NASCAR career. In 162 starts, Raines has just three Top 10's and no wins. Last year, he had just 12 starts at the Cup level.

    Don't expect a lot out of Raines as he tends to look good for a few short runs, but never seems to find a way to be in the mix at the end of races.

    Ragan is a huge up-and-comer, in my opinion. While he's had some trouble keeping his car out of trouble, he's aggressive and has had some exciting results.

    Ragan finished 14th in last year's running of the Daytona 500 and won the Coke Zero 400 at the same track in July. While he's struggled at Talladega, he qualified well there last year, starting seventh in the spring race and eighth in the fall.

    With one victory at this track already, Ragan knows how to handle the madness of restrictor plate racing.

    David Gilliland is another solid asset for this program. He had very solid results last year, finishing third in the Daytona 500, ninth in the Aaron's 499 and 16th in the Coke Zero 400. In the Good Sam Club 500, he only came home with a 22nd place finish, but one mediocre performance out of four is pretty darned good.

    Ragan and Gilliland combine to make this a very dangerous team. It may not get the attention of big teams like Hendrick Motorsports, but the talent and equipment is there for some pretty exciting things to potentially happen.

8. Michael Waltrip Racing

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    Drivers: No. 15 Clint Bowyer, No. 55 Mark Martin, No. 56 Martin Truex Jr.

    While Michael Waltrip will be competing in the Daytona 500 for Hillman Racing, the team that bears his name will be fielding an exciting trio of drivers.

    Truex has been oh-so-close to greatness a number of times, but always seems to find a way to miss out on the golden ring. Last year, he finished 19th in the Daytona 500 and a dismal 35th in the July race.

    He's a talented driver though, and you can't quite rule him out of being a factor in this weekend's race.

    Mark Martin is unquestionably the elder statesman of NASCAR and brings a ton of experience to the Michael Waltrip stables. He had a 10th place finish in last year's 500 and followed it up with an eighth place finish at Talladega in the Aaron's 499.

    The odds are, it's only a matter of time before Martin finally gets that elusive Daytona 500 victory. Isn't it? I wouldn't count him out.

    The real strength of the team might be Clint Bowyer, though.

    Bowyer finished 17th at this race a year ago after qualifying sixth. He came in second in the Aaron's 499, was taken out in an accident in the Coke Zero 400 (after qualifying third) and won the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega in the fall.

    Last year, Bowyer was very strong at the restrictor plate tracks and is my favorite to take down the big boys this Sunday.

7. Penske Racing

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    Drivers: No. 2 Brad Keselowski, No. 22 A.J. Allmendinger

    Penske Racing has a Daytona 500 victory under its belt with Ryan Newman leading the charge back in 2008. Obviously, Newman has switched to Stewart-Haas, and Penske now has Keselowski and Allmendinger carrying their hopes and dreams.

    Dinger had a pretty decent showing a year ago, qualifying 15th and finishing 11th. He followed that up with an 11th-place finish in the Aaron's 499 and 10th in the Coke Zero 400.

    He didn't fare so well in the fall Talladega race (31st), but has been strong of late at restrictor plate tracks.

    Keselowski had a rough earlier portion of the season last year. He only pulled out a 29th-place finish at Daytona last February and 33rd at Talladega. However, he turned things around, finishing 15th in the July race at Daytona and came in fourth at 'Dega in the fall.

    Neither of these two are exactly favorites to win on Sunday, but they've both had enough success on the big tracks to think that they stand a reasonable chance of bringing home the trophy.

    That is, if they can keep their cars out of trouble. A strong third would help this team, but as far as two-car teams are concerned, Penske looks pretty strong.

6. Stewart-Haas Racing

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    Drivers: No. 14 Tony Stewart, No. 39 Ryan Newman

    As already mentioned, Newman has a Daytona 500 victory that he picked up while driving for Penske back in 2008. And Tony Stewart is the defending Sprint Cup Champion.

    So, why isn't Stewart-Haas ranked higher?

    Maybe they should be. After all, Stewart did post four quality finishes on restrictor plate tracks last season. He pulled down a 13th place in the 500, 17th in the Aaron's 499, 11th in the Coke Zero 400 and seventh in the Good Sam Club 500.

    Newman, however, had an awful year on the big tracks last year, and I'm not sold that he's put the pieces together to get a great run at Daytona for Stewart-Haas. His best finish at Daytona and Talladega last year was a dismal 22nd in the opening race.

    He qualified well in the last couple of races, but couldn't parlay that into anything significant when it really mattered. Newman is a good driver and a solid addition to SHR, but Smoke will have to find a partner somewhere else if he's going to bring home the Daytona 500 trophy.

5. Richard Childress Racing

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    Drivers: No. 27 Paul Menard, No. 29 Kevin Harvick, No. 31 Jeff Burton, No. 33 Elliott Sadler

    Richard Childress has a pair of Daytona 500 victories to boast about. One came with the late Dale Earnhardt behind the wheel and the other was handed to him by Kevin Harvick in 2007.

    Childress fields an interesting Daytona team this year.

    Harvick leads the field. Not only does he have his past victory on the beach to draw from, but he had a couple of strong performances last year as well.

    Engine trouble took him out of the Daytona 500 early last year, but he qualified seventh, setting a strong tone. He went to Talladega and placed fifth in the Aaron's 499 and followed that up with a seventh-place finish at Daytona in July.

    Look for Harvick to be back in the mix this Sunday.

    Paul Menard is a pretty strong contender in his own right. He's been getting stronger as the years go by. Last season, he had a strong ninth-place finish in the 500 and an eighth-place showing in the Coke Zero 400 in July.

    To top it off, he had matching 12th-place finishes in the Talladega races, showing that he has grown fairly strong on the restrictor plate tracks.

    Jeff Burton may have his best years in his rear view mirror, but that doesn't mean he's out of the game entirely. He qualified fourth for the Daytona 500 last year before engine troubles sidelined him and handed him a 36th-place finish.

    He did well at Talladega, bringing home a 16th-place finish in the spring race and a second-place finish last fall. He's still got enough fire in the ol' belly to crash the Daytona party...in a good way.

    Elliott Sadler is the wild card. He hasn't competed at the Cup level since 2010, hasn't won at that level since 2004 and got progressively worse in the years between. His average finish in '04 was a respectable 15.9, but that dropped to 24.7 by the end of 2010.

    Has the year away revitalized Sadler or have his best years passed him by?

    Regardless, Richard Childress has a strong mix of experience, aggression and success to provide a very strong Daytona team.

4. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

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    Drivers: No. 1 Jamie McMurray, No. 42 Juan Pablo Montoya

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans love to loathe Theresa Earnhardt and everything about the company she now co-owns. However, Earnhardt Ganassi has a pretty substantial stable of talent that could translate into Daytona hardware.

    Under the DEI banner, Earnhardt picked up three Daytona 500 victories. Two of them were with Michael Waltrip behind the wheel and the third was with Dale Jr.

    Jamie McMurray picked up the first under the DGR name, winning the Great American Race in 2010.

    McMurray returns after having a mediocre 2011 restrictor plate showing. His best finish on the big tracks was 18th, which he grabbed in this race last year. Still, it wasn't long ago at all that he was doing the "hat dance" after winning the biggest race of the season.

    Interestingly enough, JPM might be the better bet come Sunday.

    Last year, Montoya was right there in the mix at both Daytona races. He came home sixth in the 500 and pulled down a ninth place finish in the Coke Zero 400.

    His finishes at Talladega weren't great (30th and 23rd), but what difference does that really make when he was so strong at Daytona and that's where they're racing this Sunday?

    McMurray and Montoya both have what it takes to be there at the end, and together they make winning at Daytona a very real possibility.

3. Roush Fenway Racing

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    Drivers: No. 6 Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 16 Greg Biffle, No. 17 Matt Kenseth, No. 99 Carl Edwards

    Roush Fenway snagged a Daytona 500 victory in 2009 with Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is still with Roush and looks to add another Daytona trophy to his case.

    He didn't fare so well last year, struggling to come in 34th after qualifying ninth for the field. However, he picked up a second-place finish in the Coke Zero 400 in July and showed he's still strong at Daytona.

    The Biff didn't have great luck here last year either. He came in right behind Kenseth at 35th. In the July race, he finished a respectable 18th and picked up seventh- and 14th-place finishes at Talladega.

    Biffle jump starts his 2012 campaign by taking the outside pole for Sunday's race. A front row start gets him out front early and hopefully keeps him out of trouble when the craziness starts.

    Right next to him, starting pole is his teammate Carl Edwards.

    Edwards narrowly missed winning the 500 last year, coming in second behind Trevor Bayne. He struggled in the July race (37th) but finished sixth and 11th at the two Talladega races.

    Edwards also narrowly missed winning the series championship and is undoubtedly hungry to start out the 2012 season strong.

    Stenhouse is a rookie and a long-shot to win the Daytona 500. However, with a cast of teammates as talented as he has, nothing can be taken for granted.

    So, with two drivers sitting at the front of the pack for Sunday's race, why isn't Roush Fenway ranked at the very top of these standings?

    Simply put, it's a fairly rare thing for the pole sitter to win Daytona. There's so much shuffling through the pack and pit stops/strategies can play such a huge factor in the outcome of a race that it's statistically more likely that neither Edwards nor Biffle will win.

    Plus, the top two have some things to brag about in their own right...

2. Joe Gibbs Racing

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    Drivers: No. 11 Denny Hamlin, No. 18 Kyle Busch, No. 20 Joey Logano

    This is one tough stable of drivers.

    Denny Hamlin is one of the fiercest competitors out there. His performances on the restrictor plate tracks last year weren't overly impressive, but he's the kind of driver that can make things happen.

    He did bring home a very respectable 13th-place finish in the July race at Daytona and came in eighth at Talladega near the end of the season. He can get around a big track just fine, thank you very much.

    Joey Logano is steadily improving year after year. He had a median 23rd-place finish in the 500 last year, but came in third in the July race and has to be considered a threat on Sunday.

    Kyle Busch is the man to beat at the moment, though. While Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle locked up the front row for the start of the race, "Wild Thing" has already proven he knows how to bring home the checkers.

    In the Budweiser Shootout, Busch looked to be all out of luck as his car got completely sideways late in the sprint. He pulled it out, saved the car and went on to take down Tony Stewart for the victory.

    While that's well and good, combine it with the fact that he ran eighth in last year's Great American Race and finished fifth in the Coke Zero 400. He's a strong competitor at any track, but has become exceptionally tough at Daytona.

    Look for Rowdy to get up front early and often, and don't be at all surprised if he brings home the victory Sunday.

    With a crew like this, Joe Gibbs is well set to be a front-running team in the 54th annual running of the Daytona 500.

1. Hendrick Motorsports

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    Drivers: No. 5 Kasey Kahne, No. 24 Jeff Gordon, No. 48 Jimmie Johnson, No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    When it comes to Daytona 500 victories amongst active drivers, no team fields more of them than Hendrick Motorsports. As an organization, Hendrick has six Daytona 500 wins that include three by Jeff Gordon, one by Jimmie Johnson, one by Darrell Waltrip and one by Geoff Bodine.

    Of the active drivers, they still have five victories represented. Three by Gordon, one by Johnson and one by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (won while under the DEI flag).

    No other team can boast as much experience in victory lane at Daytona as Hendrick's crew can.

    Gordon has been chasing an elusive fifth series title for quite a while now. That's no secret. He's also chasing his fourth Daytona 500 victory that would tie him with Cale Yarborough for second most in the sport's history and would put him three shy of Richard Petty as the all-time leader.

    After qualifying on the outside of the pole last year, Gordon struggled and came home with a 28th-place finish. He placed sixth in the summer race though, and continues to be one of the guys to beat on the big tracks.

    Johnson is as hungry as he's been in years. "Five Time" got a taste of what it's like being on the outside looking in last year as he failed to really enter the race for the series championship. He's coming in wanting a big start to his drive to return to the championship throne.

    Last year, Johnson struggled at Daytona, coming in 27th in the 500 and 20th in the 400. However, he is still strong at restrictor plate tracks and looked good in the Budweiser Shootout. Plus, it wasn't that long ago that he won the Daytona 500 (2006) with virtually all the same crew and support.

    Earnhardt has likewise struggled somewhat to return to Victory Lane at Daytona since winning in 2004. However, the fan favorite routinely gets to the front at restrictor plate tracks and shows no signs of changing that this year.

    His pairing with crew chief Steve LaTarte has been a positive move that manifested in stronger showings last season across the board. Junior seems happy with the situation at Hendrick and his team is gradually getting stronger.

    Look for him to make a statement Sunday as he drives to get back into the Chase and challenge for a championship.

    The addition of Kasey Kahne only makes the Hendrick crew stronger. While Mark Martin was a tremendous asset for Hendrick, Kahne brings a different style of driving and a little infusion of youth.

    Kahne had a median 25th place finish in last year's Daytona 500, but returned in July to bring home a fourth place finish. With better equipment and strong support from the other teams in the Hendrick garage, Kahne has to be considered a legitimate contender for victory.

    Put together the tremendous success Hendrick drivers have had in this race with the way these drivers looked in the Budweiser Shootout, the amount of motivation they all have to succeed this year and sheer quality of equipment they field, and the odds are very, very good that a Hendrick driver will end up waving the checkered flag Sunday.

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