Coming into the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup campaign, one of the major stories involved the re-evolution of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and how he should rebound. With the exception of qualifying on the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500, all of his other performances at Daytona have been mediocre at best.
The actual real racing hasn’t happened yet, so there still may be hope, but based on his lackluster 21st place finish in the Gatorade Duel, and his last three poor practice times, the indication is that he is closer to finishing Sunday’s race in the bottom half of the field rather than the top half.
Hendrick Motorsports has poured every resource possible into the No. 88 team, including new Chassis, better communication with fellow garage-mates of the No. 5 team, and stability to begin the season with crew chief Lance McGrew.
In Wednesday’s practice sessions, the driver’s first real chance to race their Daytona 500 cars in the draft with each other, Junior couldn’t even crack the top-30 in speed. During Thursday’s Gatorade Duel Junior finished 21st and accused Brian Vickers of bumping into to him and damaging his car—causing him to take his uncompetitive car to the garage.
In Saturday’s final practice session, things got a little better, but not much. Junior ran 45 laps and ended with the 21st best time, which he captured on lap 18.
The correlation between Martin and Earnhardt Jr and sharing garages is pretty apparent because their cars have looked similar throughout Daytona speed weeks. In the first practice session while in qualifying trim Junior was fastest, with Martin right behind him in second.
During qualifying Martin took the pole with Junior right behind him—putting the two cars on the front row. Martin was slightly better in the drafting practices, but he too fell out of his Gatorade Duel with a 21st place finish.
It may not happen for Earnhardt Jr this week, but if in fact his stable of cars are similar to Martin’s this season it could be good news on all the down force tracks and the flat mid-range tracks of Phoenix, New Hampshire, and Richmond—places where Martin excelled last season.
As for the rest of the field, the most impressive drivers over the last week of practice and the Duels have been Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, who have a great combination of horsepower and handling working at the highest level for their cars.
Busch has been one of the best restrictor plate drivers over the last few seasons, and probably should have won the last two Daytona 500’s, not to mention last years July Daytona race. During practice, no one has been more consistently good than Busch, who has come in with a second fastest time twice, and placed sixth in Saturday’s session.
Kenseth comes in with the swagger of being the defending Daytona 500 Champion, and has the look of a driver who could become the first to go back-to-back at Daytona since Sterling Marlin in 1995. His new RF9 Ford engine has made a good restrictor plate car even better according to speeds in practice—where he hasn’t been slower than sixth in any of the last three important sessions, including fastest on Wednesday.
Jimmie Johnson hasn’t wowed anyone in practice, but he used his crew and a good car to get a Gatorade Duel win Thursday. The car they’re using, a back-up, is their Bud Shootout car, and the one that finished second at Daytona last July. Johnson’s car feels good because he took a few laps on Saturday and parked it early, a sign that they are ready for Sunday.
The Childress drivers came out strong in the final session Saturday by claiming the top speeds of the day, and they were led by Jeff Burton’s top speed of 195.194 mph in the middle of his 60 laps run, which were the most of the day.
Kevin Harvick has been as steady as they come in restrictor plate races, and finished with the second best time of the day behind his teammate. The Daytona 500 has been Harvick’s place to shine, more so than any other race. He was second last season, won in 2007, and has two other fourth place finishes since 2003.
A driver similar to Harvick in regards to consistency in the Daytona 500 is Elliott Sadler. Since 2004, Sadler has finished seventh, 11th, fourth, sixth, sixth, and fifth last year. That is pretty strong stuff, especially for a driver that hasn’t had the best equipment. This year he’ll be in a Ford again and will be one of three racing the new RF9 Ford engine.
Based on the entire week of practice and events leading up to the Daytona 500, while mixing in some past restrictor plate history, I have come up with my top drivers to win this week. Good luck, and enjoy the race.
5. Jimmie Johnson