This year's 2009 Daytona 500 is setting up to be one of the most competitive races in recent history. With no offseason testing, all teams are on a level playing field as they head into the qualifying races Thursday for the 51st Daytona 500.
Many different team and driver combinations have changed since the end of the 2008 season—the most notable, Stewart Haas Racing, in which past NASCAR champion Tony Stewart formed in a part ownership with Carl Haas.
Stewart will pilot the No. 14 Old Spice, Office Depot Chevy, and will field a second car, the No. 39 Army Chevy, for 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman.
Other drivers have seen movement as well; Earnhardt and Ganassi Racing have merged to field cars for Juan Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., and Aric Almirola.
Petty Racing, who has merged with Evernham Motorsports, has added Reed Sorenson and A.J. Allmindinger to its driver line up to team with Elliot Sadler and Kasey Kahne.
Also, Hendrick Motorsports added veteran Mark Martin, who will start from the 2nd spot in Sunday's Great American Race.
Nearly half the field has changed drivers this season.
The field will be set by Thursday evening as the running of the Gatorade Duels will set the field. Many drivers have to race their way into the 500, as they have no points to fall back on.
The duels will make up positions No. 3 through No. 39, as the top 35 in owner's points from 2008 are locked in the field. Drivers will be battling it out for 150 miles to determine who will earn a spot in the race.
So, here are my predictions for the Daytona 500. There are a few favorites I am looking at to win the race.
Kevin Harvick is one of them. Harvick, who waited patiently in the back of Saturday's Shootout All-Star race, only to come from the back to take the win, knows how to get it done on the high banks of Daytona as he edged Mark Martin for the 500 crown in 2007.
How about Kyle Busch?
The fast, young driver was dominate on the super speedways last season and finished fourth in last year's 500—his aggression could win or lose the 500 for him.
Another favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This is his best chance to win Daytona since winning it in 2004. Driving for the best team, with the best resources as drivers, along with his talent and results at Daytona, make Dale Jr. the fan favorite to win.
A have a few dark horses, Brian Vickers is at the top of the list. He ran well in the shootout and knows how to work the draft, picking up his first and only cup win in 2007 at Talladega.
Casey Mears is another.
He hasn't the team to do it, as he replaced Clint Bowyer in the No. 07 Richard Childress car, and if provided the right help and positioning in the final laps, Casey could pull off the upset at Daytona. My last but not least sleeper, how about Bill Elliott.
Elliott has won a race since 2002 and has been quick in practice and qualifying for the 500 so far this week. He will start third in the Gatorade Duel and has a past champion's provisional to fall back on if he cannot race his way in.
Awesome Bill from Dawsonville has his best, and maybe final shot, at taking the win at Daytona.