No other sport starts its year with its biggest event, but NASCAR isn’t just any other sport.
On Sunday, 43 cars will attempt to win one of the biggest races in motorsports when the green flag falls on the 52nd Daytona 500. Mark Martin and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead them there as they attempt to pick up right where HMS left off in 2009.
Matt Kenseth heads back to the beach as the defending winner of the 500, after rain cut short the 2009 edition. Kenseth looks to redeem himself from missing the Chase last year while teammate Carl Edwards is just hoping that he can participate in the 500 without having to worry about his wife Kate going into labor.
And then there’s Michael Waltrip, who will be running his final race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Waltrip will step back after Sunday to oversee his three other cars that are under the Michael Waltrip Racing banner. He’ll end his career at the track that helped him solidify it, Daytona, where he’s a two-time winner of the Great American Race.
But after all the storylines are ripped away lets not forget that Daytona means the 2010 season is officially underway and it’s time to get to business. All the preseason talk about championship favorites and new rule changes for this season has arrived and now it’s time to see how it all plays out.
For our Creatures, it means it’s time to get back to picking race winners, something they did very well last year, as they attempt to dethrone champion Ben Bomberger. They’ll have to start with the Daytona 500, and whom they think will pull into victory lane after 500 miles around the fast and rough Daytona International Speedway.
Misan Akuya: Tony Stewart
Since his rookie season in 1999 Tony Stewart has shown that he is one of the best plate racers NASCAR has ever seen. He’s won Nationwide races at Daytona, an IROC race, Budweiser Shootouts, Gatorade Duels, and Coke Zero 400’s. It’s time for Smoke to win the Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt waited 20 years to win it, Darrell Waltrip waited 17 and I believe after 12 years of trying Tony Stewart will win the Daytona 500 in dominating fashion to start his 2010 quest for a third Sprint Cup Championship.
Ben Bomberger: Kyle Busch
Busch begins 2010 coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign, after—surprisingly—missing the Chase. He enters 2010 with a new crew chief as well and heading into Daytona this weekend, the "Shrub" has one win, four top-fives, four top-10s and an average finish of 18th at the 2.5-mile oval.
His average running position of 10.9 is second best among active drivers, as is his Driver Rating of 101.0. Last year, Busch led the most laps in the Daytona 500, but was caught up in a wreck, ending his day with a 41st-place finish.
This year, I think Busch will rebound and capture his first Daytona 500 trophy.
James Broomhead: Jamie McMurray
So, we all know the name above could be anyone of 20, 30 or even 35 drivers who could have a shot at taking the big win, restrictor plate racing is just like that. But why pull McMurray out the hat above Stewart, Martin, even Junior?
Well, we know he can run well at plate tracks, he won the last race at Talladega. We also know that the RCR/EGR engine package is good enough, with Harvick winning the shootout, a race where McMurray was at the front, too.
Plus, of course, it's just a hunch.
Kelly Crandall: Kyle Busch
When it comes to the restrictor plate tracks there are two drivers that are bound to be near the front: Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. After picking Busch to win last years 500, we all know how that went; I’m not giving up him since he’ll continue to be a great threat for many years to come.
Busch is relentless on these tracks, driving from lane to lane to protect his lead and showing what his Toyota is made of. This year will be no different. He’s a past winner at Daytona, in the July race of 2008, as well as his Duel race last year, and is also a winner at Talladega.
And no one will forget the memorable ride he took last July when trying to block Stewart for the win on the last lap. With a new year and new crew chief, but same attitude, Busch won’t be backing down anytime soon and will assert himself a contender for this year’s Daytona 500 win.
Billy Fellin: Kasey Kahne
I don't know about you guys, but Speedweeks always gets my blood going just a little bit faster with anticipation. As far as my pick for the 500, I'm going with Kasey Kahne. Sure, he's my favorite driver and all, but he's been just plain FAST thus far.
He came charging up through the field during the Shootout and was up front for a majority of the race, including having a shot to win it there at the end. Could this be a marquee year for Kasey? Maybe. He definitely seems to like that Ford R9 engine right now.
Adam Heasley: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I am not going to lie, when it comes to Daytona and Talladega I can be very bias towards the driver we know as Little E. Good thing his record at restrictor plate tracks is second to none huh? So, with that said I'm taking Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Daytona 500 and Amp him up for the 2010 season that hopefully is a full testament to the saying "third times a charm."
It's Earnhardt Jr.’s third year with Hendrick Motorsports.
Yes, he did run poorly at the Budweiser Shootout. However, how quickly we are to forget that the car he drove would have been a third back up car to his 500 machine, which is wicked fast as we saw in qualifying.
So as I finish I leave u with this question. Why not Jr.?
Christopher Leone: Tony Stewart
With a year under their belt that No. 14 team is going to be even stronger in 2010 than they were last year. Darian Grubb has a 500 win under his belt, and Stewart's going to be fast. He, like Dale Earnhardt in the 1990s, is ready to get that monkey off his back and win the Great American Race.
Kara Martin: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It is a new year for Junior, an extremely important year! He has something to prove after a dismal 2009 season, not only to his fans, but to himself. This could potentially be his make it or break it year. How much longer will fans stand by their man if history repeats itself?
Earnhardt Jr. has the potential for greatness on restrictor plate tracks, he lost his mojo last season but Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin' at the air, I hope he has found it.
We need for Junior to bring his A-game to Daytona and prove that last year was just one bad dream. Sitting pretty on the front line for this year's most important race, knowing that he has the advantage of leading the rest of the pack to victory lane will be exactly what it takes to remind us why we were Junior fans to begin with.
Dustin Parks: Tony Stewart
This man is in an uneasy position much like Dale Earnhardt was for a lot of his career. Earnhardt had won everything there could ever be won with at Daytona. Gatorade 125's, the Shootout (called the Busch Clash back then), the July race, IROC, road races, everything held at that track he won.
But, the big race never came through until 1998, 20 years after his first attempt.
This season will be Stewart's 12th time in the Daytona 500, and much like Earnhardt, he has won practically every major NASCAR event at the track. Twice he's won the Shootout, three victories in the July race, and strong performances in the Gatorade Duels. But he has not made it to victory lane in the big one.
But, after seeing how strong he was last Saturday out front, I cannot help but think this is going to be the year "Smoke" gets that trophy. I'm going with the Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet.
Patti Rodisch: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart has won at Daytona, just not the one race that every driver dreams of winning in their career, the Daytona 500. I think we saw a glimpse of exactly how good Stewart will be on Sunday afternoon after his performance in the Budweiser Shootout.
The conditions will be different then what they raced then, but Stewart had a car that was capable of going anywhere on the track. This is something that will be important to have success at Daytona.
I think, on Sunday, Stewart will finally hoist the most coveted trophy in motorsports, Harley J. Earl trophy.
Sal Sigala Jr.: Tony Stewart
In 2009 Stewart probably had one his best all-around season's since coming to NASCAR. Even though he didn't win the championship, Stewart showed a different side of his personality that has never been seen before. He kept his composure through thick and thin, and didn’t show the episodes of outbursts that he was known for.
He won races early in the season, which is not his normal protocol, and his win in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was a testimony of the patience that he has racing these restrictor plate tracks. Stewart is dangerous, along with being a factor anytime he straps himself into his No. 14 Chevrolet.
He is long overdue for a 500 victory, and a win is all that is missing on his already impressive resume.
Rob Tiongson: Mark Martin
The New Orleans Saints delivered a great storybook ending by winning the NFL's grandest prize: the Super Bowl, beating the favorites in the Indianapolis Colts. While this race has active winners in three-time champ Jeff Gordon and two-time titlist Bill Elliott, I look for a sentimental favorite to finally deliver with his first Daytona 500.
Yes folks, I'm going with Go Daddy's granddaddy Mark Martin, whose love for plate racing is like the Beach Boys truly reuniting with Brian Wilson and Al Jardine. Tough love aside for my favorite band, Martin is a solid racer at the big tracks and provided he gets off his pessimistic talk, he's a legitimate pick.
After all, he was mere inches from beating Kevin Harvick in 2007. He'll be solid and as long as he keeps his fenders clean all race long, look for the green, black, and orange colored Chevy to be in Victory Lane.
David Yeazell: Kasey Kahne
I think his performance so far has proven he has a legitimate shot.
The winner of the Daytona 500 can come from just about anywhere in the field, last year it was Matt Kenseth who started 39th and then picked up his first 500 victory. He also kept what seems to be the latest trend with Daytona 500 victors: It is their very in the big race.
Kenseth (2009), Newman (2008), Harvick (2007), and even Jimmie Johnson back in 2006 were all first time winners of the Daytona 500. That may continue Sunday if our Creature’s picks are on their game.
But on the downside to winning the Daytona 500, it doesn’t mean you have a great race season. Not since Johnson in 2006 has the winner of the first race of the year gone on to end the year on a high note. Kenseth missed last years Chase, Newman hasn’t won a race since his 2008 Daytona win, and the same goes for Kevin Harvick.
However, even though statistics may be against them, there isn’t one driver in this Sunday’s field that wouldn’t want to win the Daytona 500. The question is, will it once again doom a driver’s season?
Summary of Picks
Tony Stewart – 5
Kyle Busch – 2
Kasey Kahne – 2
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 2
Jamie McMurray – 1
Mark Martin – 1