With all of the buzz and excitement from the holiday season winding down, it is time to start getting excited about something else. If you are a NASCAR fan, at this point in the year, there can only be one thing that grabs your excitement, and that is the Daytona 500.
The Great American Race is just under two months away, and while that may seem like an eternity to some of us, it will actually be here before we know it.
It will be tough to match last year's race in terms of quality (aside from the two pot hole debacles), and Jamie McMurray's emotional victory lane celebration, but the 2011 version of the Daytona 500 is sure to leave its own lasting images.
And with that, I offer you my 15 predictions for the opening race of 2011.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is unique in that time trials are responsible for setting just the first two positions. That being said, I see no reason to think that the top two positions won't be swept by Chevy drivers.
Each of the last three seasons, the pole sitter for the Daytona 500 was in a Chevy, and for the last two years, both of the top two spots have been claimed by the manufacturer.
The only other restrictor plate race last season that saw time trials run (the spring Talladega race and Pepsi 400 at Daytona both saw time trials get rained out) was at Talladega in the fall, and once again, the top two spots were swept by Chevrolet.
Mark Martin has seen his time hold up as one of the two fastest for the past two seasons. He was the pole sitter a season ago, and two years ago, he was to the outside of Martin Truex Jr. I think he will make it three years in a row on the front row, but he will be edged out for the top spot by Juan Montoya.
When it comes to Daytona and Talladega, the "big one" is that one caution that involves numerous cars. One driver gets a little out of control, and as a result, a melee ensues that involves numerous cars.
I feel confident that it will not happen, for two reasons. The first is simple, this is the Daytona 500. I know that some people would think that for the chance to win the season's biggest race, drivers would be more willing to be aggressive, thus resulting in a silly move that causes a big pileup, but I don't see it happening.
While everyone wants to win this race, everyone also wants to finish this race. Simply put, if you aren't running at the finish, you can't win, so why put yourself, and the rest of the field in that situation? The big one never happened in 2010, and there is no reason to think it will in 2011 either. I think this will end up being a calm race, caution wise.
The second reason, is that after the recent testing at Daytona, many drivers are comparing the way the track drives now, to Talladega. And when you look at Talladega last year, depending on your definition of the "big one," it never happened.
In the spring there were two cautions that involved about seven cars each, but let's be honest, at Talladega or Daytona, that has to be considered a small crash. In the fall, there was no incidents of any magnitude until the final lap, that brought the race to an abrupt finish.
So, quite frankly, I just don't see the big one happening, and as a fan of racing, not crashing, I hope that I am right.
As mentioned, the consensus going around the garage after the first wave of testing at Daytona, was that now that it has been repaved, it drives a lot more like Talladega, than it ever has before. If that is the case, then expect a Talladega-type race.
The current record for lead changes in a Daytona 500 is 60. The 2010 running of the 500 saw that record challenged, when 52 lead changes occurred. Both Talladega races last season saw more than 80 lead changes, with 88 and 87 respectively.
If the new surface at Daytona allows for more side-by-side racing, faster speeds and more three-wide action than in recent years, don't be surprised if 60 lead changes is reached well before the checkered flag waves.
If we are going to have a new record for lead changes, we might just as well set a new record for number of drivers who lead a lap.
This one goes for all the same reasons as why we will have so many lead changes. It just seems logical that if more than 60 lead changes are going to take place, it will be by a vast array of drivers. The current record for number of different leaders in a Daytona 500 is 18. That number should be in serious jeopardy this coming year.
A season after finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the point standings, I think Denny Hamlin is going to struggle a bit in 2011. Hamlin is a very emotional driver, and coming off the disappointing way that he lost the championship to Johnson, I think there will be some lingering difficulties to start the season.
Add to the fact that Daytona has never been kind to Hamlin, and all signs point to a big struggle to open the season for Hamlin. In 10 career starts at the track, Hamlin has just one top 10 finish, a third place effort in July of 2009.
Other than that, his best finish in Daytona in just 17th place. Don't expect much out of Hamlin to open the 2011 campaign.
The middle part of December saw a handful of teams on track at Daytona testing out the tires that Goodyear is planning on bringing to the track for the Great American Race.
After the two-day test session, drivers were raving about how well the tire held up. Many drivers were impressed with the amount of grip that the new surface provided and how well the tire held up, during mock race runs.
Mark Martin was quoted as saying, "I think we ran six laps without even wearing the sticker off the left front tire. In fact, we could probably run the full 500 miles on the same set of tires."
When teams come in to make their final pit stops of the race, with a tire compound this strong, don't be surprised to see a handful of teams decline tires and just take fuel and gain that ever important track position.
With the lack of "the big one," and the current wave around procedures, the end of the race should easily feature at least 30 cars still in contention for the win.
Based on the early testing from the track, the new and improved surface and the tire that Goodyear is bringing, many people think that breaking up the big pack will be nearly impossible unless, changes are made to the restrictor plates that NASCAR uses.
Should a caution come out within the last 20 or so laps of the race, with the new tire compound, expect most drivers who are a lap down to stay out and take the wave around to get themselves back into contention. I can easily see at least 30 cars being in the lead pack that takes the white flag with a chance to win the race.
We see it many times throughout the course of the season. A round of green flag pit stops takes place and a driver that had been running in the top 10 at the time gets caught for speeding on pit road and is forced to serve a pass through penalty; that ultimately dooms his chances of getting the win.
Expect that to happen more than once in the Daytona 500. There should be more than one opportunity to make green flag stops in the season opener, and it is almost inevitable that someone will get busted for speeding.
At a track like Daytona, where losing the draft is disastrous, a pass through penalty all but ensures you will be on and off pit road by yourself which almost guarantees you will be going a lap down when the rest of the pack overtakes you on track.
With the speeds reaching right around 200 miles per hour, getting off the track and slowed down to the pit road speed limit of 55 miles per hour is no easy task, especially during green flag conditions, watch for this mistake to be the downfall of at least two drivers during Speedweeks.
Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has had no luck in this race. In the last four Daytona 500s, Johnson's best finish was a 27th place run in 2008. Those are not the kind of finishes you expect at the biggest race of the season for a five time defending champion.
As dominant as Johnson typically is at every other track, it is a huge surprise that he hasn't fared any better in Daytona. Obviously, some luck factors into restrictor plate races and not getting swept up in someone elses mess, but the fact remains that recent finishes for Johnson are not what you would expect.
I do expect Johnson to mix it up at the front of the field through the first half of the race, but as the laps wind down, don't look for the No. 48 near the front. For one reason or another, luck has just not been on his side for the Daytona 500.
The 2010 Daytona 500 had to go an extra eight laps to determine the winner. On the final restart of the race, Jamie McMurray was able to get by Kevin Harvick for the lead, and ultimately held on for the final two laps to win the race.
That kind of two lap drama will be noticeably absent from this year's 500. While the finish will still promise to have some excitement, no more than the scheduled 200 laps will be needed to get to the checkers.
As mentioned, I think that the race will be fairly tame in terms of caution flags. On the whole, there were 40 fewer caution flags in 2010 than in 2009, I think the trend will continue going forward. With the advances made to the stability of the race cars, caution flags seem to be flying fewer and further between, thus making green-white-checkered finishes less likely than in recent years.
Just because there won't be a green-white-checkered finish, doesn't mean there won't be some late drama in the race. With a record setting amount of lead changes on the horizon, it is only fitting that one of them takes place on the final lap.
Jamie McMurray was able to avoid the agony of being passed for the win on the final lap of the Daytona 500 last season when he was able to hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the line. This season will be different.
If everyone is right in the assumption that this race will look more similar to a race at Talladega, then it might as well have a Talladega-type finish. Who can forget the spring race at Talladega last season when Kevin Harvick squeezed by Jamie McMurray in the final 200 yards of the race?
Expect a similar finish to the Daytona 500, and I will tell you who makes that last lap pass shortly.
Jamie McMurray may have been a surprise winner in the Daytona 500, but he has quickly become one of the premier drivers when it comes to restrictor plate racing. He had previously won the final restrictor plate race of 2009 and was a few feet from claiming his third consecutive restrictor plate win at Talladega a few weeks after Daytona.
With his recent record at this type of track, expect McMurray to pull off another top five finish. McMurray had a career year in 2010. Aside from winning at Daytona, he went to victory lane at the Brickyard, as well as in Charlotte. Aside from not making the Chase, 2010 was a near perfect year.
The odds are certainly stacked against him to defend his title at Daytona, but there is no reason to think that at the very least, he will at least be in contention all the way to the checkered flag.
Had the points championship been determined the traditional method, Kevin Harvick would have been the runaway champion in 2010. Regardless, he still finished a career best third in the points and set new career highs in top five and top 10 finishes for a season.
As impressive as he was all season, his restrictor plate prowess was something to behold. Harvick won once each at Daytona and Talladega and had a runner-up finish and a seventh place finish in the other two outings. And let's not forget that he was the race leader for the final restart of the Daytona 500 before ultimately getting shuffled back a little at the end.
In his last five outings in the Daytona 500, Harvick has finished inside the top 15 in each race, including a dramatic win in 2007. Saying that Harvick will ultimately score a top five in the race this year may not be much of a prediction after all. It might just simply be a no brainer.
There may not have been a team that finished 2010 stronger than Roush Racing. As a group they earned four victories in the final 15 events, including the final two races of the season, which were both won by Carl Edwards.
The whole team seems to have hit a stride late in the year and are looking to carry that momentum into the new season. I think that between Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, all three of them should be able to solidly finish in the top 10 at the season's opening race.
And don't forget about their other teammate, David Ragan. While it is safe to say that Ragan has under achieved for the past two seasons, the plate races seem to be where he is at his best.
I look for Roush Racing as a whole to have a very strong season in 2011, and that will start with an impressive showing at the Daytona 500.
Jeff Gordon is extremely due to have a win and a big season. Numerous times in 2010, Gordon was in position late in the race to get a victory, and yet for one reason or another, he couldn't capitalize on any of those opportunities.
I think this coming season, and in particular the Daytona 500, will be different. During this offseason, Hendrick Motorsports has shuffled its driver and crew chief combinations. Now, Gordon will be working with one of the best in the business, Alan Gustafson.
The team also swapped its garage pairings around. Now, instead of working out of the same shop as Jimmie Johnson and his team, Gordon will be sharing work space with Mark Martin and the No. 5 team.
I think the new crew chief and getting out of the shadow of Johnson will do wonders for Gordon in 2011, and he will reap the reward right out of the gate with a victory in the Daytona 500 for the fourth time in his illustrious career.