Dustin Off the First Race: 52nd Annual Daytona 500

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Dustin Off the First Race: 52nd Annual Daytona 500
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

It has come down to this. Sunday afternoon, 43 drivers will line up and take the green flag in a race every driver in NASCAR wants to win.

There is something about this race that makes it so magical, so glamorous that a victory solidifies one's place in NASCAR. It puts you among the greats in the sport, men who have taken victory in this race. Guys like Petty, Allison, Elliott, Pearson, Waltrip, Earnhardt, Gordon, and Jarrett have their names on that winning trophy.

It's a race that takes months to prepare for, with six days to set the field.

Call it what you want, the season-opening event, NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Great American Race, it all is relative.

This is the big one, the race every driver in NASCAR wants to win. It's the Daytona 500.

Without question, everything is on the line once the green flag drops. Each driver has a chance to win, but I have narrowed it down to eight drivers to watch. They may be favorites, underdogs or sleepers, but they are ones to keep an eye on for 200 laps.

It's time for me to dust off the first race of the season, and get rolling on what is going to be an incredible year of NASCAR action.

 

FAVORITES

Tony Stewart:  How can you not like this guy at this track. He's done everything you can ask for in a driver at Daytona. Two-time Bud Shootout winner, IROC winner, three-time winner of the night race in July. He's raced in the Rolex 24, coming close to victory.

Everything he has accomplished at this track, but he still has an empty section in his trophy case for the Daytona 500.

This team has looked strong since it's debut last year, and this track is just special for "Smoke" and his team. With Hendrick power under the hood, it's going to be hard to bet against this team.

He is my pick for the win on Sunday.


Kyle Busch:
 Here's a guy who battled Stewart for the win last July at this track. We all know how that ended up. Busch found out the hard way that blocking once was good, but blocking twice is evil.

The guy known as "Rowdy" returns to Daytona hoping to recapture some of the success he had in 2008 at this track. When he debuted with Joe Gibbs Racing, he dominated the Daytona 500 only to come short of victory. He redeemed himself in July when he won the Coke Zero 400.

One thing for certain is that his aggressive style will work well now that the rules have been loosened for bump drafting. I expect a lot of banging coming from this hot shoe.

Watch out for the No. 18 Toyota.


Dale Earnhardt Jr:
The name should say it all.

This track means so much to Earnhardt Jr. as it has given him some of his greatest victories and has avenged his greatest loss.

Last year, you couldn't have a worse time at Daytona than Earnhardt Jr. A wreck in the Shootout, two pit road incidents and him beginning the big wreck in the race just started a turbulent year for he and his team.

He is starting out the season right as he has qualified on the front row. In his qualifying race, after knowing he had damage and was near the back, he simply pulled off and parked his car.

The fan favorite needs a major rebound. What better way to do it than at the big race.


Kevin Harvick:
You cannot forget about the guy who won the Shootout. The last two years, this team has won at Daytona, just not for points.

This team provided the only victory for Richard Childress Racing all year in 2009, and despite a valiant effort, it was a very bad year for the organization.

This year, Harvick once again provided a boost in confidence for RCR. The question now becomes can he follow it up and put his car in victory lane again. No driver has won the Bud Shootout and the Daytona 500 in the same stretch since Dale Jarrett in 2000.

I believe he can do it, and he's got a good starting spot so he is capable.

 

SLEEPERS

Matt Kenseth: I know it's rather unique to put the defending champion in this catagory, but I've got a simple reason.

The race last year did not go the full distance, and Kenseth found himself in the right spot at the right time. I do not know if he would've been able to hold on the final 120 miles that needed to be run.

I think he can still compete with these guys and he should be a strong car come Sunday. Watch for the No. 17 and the Crown Royal team.


Ryan Newman:
Another former champion is in this category because he has not found victory lane since that time.

With all the focus on Stewart and the successes he had, Ryan Newman quietly worked his way into the Chase last year and had a great showing. He did not get to victory lane, but he was there when it mattered.

He definitely can win the race on Sunday, and he's got a lot of service men and women behind him. The U.S. Army car is on my watch list.

Kasey Kahne: What a way to start out the season for the Budweiser team. The entire Richard Petty Motorsports camp seems to be just rejuvenated after teaming with Yates and switching to Ford.

Kahne was the one driver to really benefit. He ran extremely well in the Shootout, qualified well last Saturday then went out to barely edge Stewart to win his Gatorade Duel.

If there's a team with a lot of momentum, it's this one. Starting on the outside of row two, the Budweiser team is looking to put the No. 9 back in victory lane at Daytona.

 

SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE

Mark Martin: I had to add this man in here because he deserves the recognition. For a 50-year-old to be still on track and running well is quite an accomplishment.

Martin put his No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet on the pole, a place he was at a lot last year as he had his most successful season to date. This crew struggled last year at the Daytona 500 as they were just starting out and finding what would work.

But once they did, it was hard to bet against Martin and Alan Gustafson.

Martin did not tear up equipment in his qualifying race as when he saw it getting dicey, he just pulled off and parked his car. A veteran move and a smart one as he still has his front row position secured.

Said to be the best driver to not win a championship, he could also be the best driver yet to win the Daytona 500. Watch out as GoDaddy.com's "grand daddy" will make some noise.

 

It has come down to this, the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season gets under way Sunday afternoon. Coverage on FOX begins at 12 p.m. with the prerace show and a performance by Tim McGraw. The race goes green shortly after 1 p.m.

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