All Eyes on NASCAR: What to Watch for in the Daytona 500

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All Eyes on NASCAR: What to Watch for in the Daytona 500
As the last practice sessions wind down, excitement and expectations are starting to peak for Sunday's 49th annual Daytona 500 Nextel Cup Race.  The starting lineup is finalized, last-minute adjustments are in the works, and the long hours are finally set to come to fruition. 
 
Of course, that doesn't mean it's too late to make predictions.
 
The question on everyone's lips is a simple one: Who's going to find his way to victory lane?  What follows are my analysis and picks for the race, along with a look at my Fantasy NASCAR lineup.
 
Analysis, Mr. Spock?
 
If the races this past week tell us anything, it's that Tony Stewart is the man to watch. The number 20 Home Depot Chevy won the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday night—before Stewart won the first of the Duel 150 races on Thursday.  His car is fast and handles well, and Smoke can drive the wheels off of anything. The first race of the 2007 Nextel Cup season hasn't been run yet, but Tony already has four victories on the year: two in sprint car events, and the aforementioned non-points wins this past week.  Stewart starts third on Sunday—but you can expect him to waste little time running by the Yates Fords and getting out in front of the field.
 
But Stewart isn't the end of the story. If the history of restrictor-plate tracks tells us anything, it's that Jeff Gordon is the man to watch. Gordon has three Daytona 500 wins, and more victories at the track than any active driver.  He added another notch to his belt on Thursday, making an absolutely brilliant pass on the outside of Matt Kenseth before cutting inside of Kurt Busch to squeak out a win on the last lap. Unfortunately for Gordon, post-race inspection found a ride-height discrepancy caused by an improperly installed shock-mount bolt.  Though NASCAR ruled that the modification wasn't intentional—in fact the inspectors felt it was more dangerous than helpful—Gordon's number 24 Dupont Chevy will have to start 42nd on Sunday. Still, Jeff has the ability and the car to work his way forward—and change happens quickly at Daytona.
 
But what about recent history? If last season tells us anything, it's that Jimmie Johnson is the man to watch. Johnson won the 500 in 2006 even though his crew chief Chad Knauss was serving a rules-infraction suspension.  Hendrick cars have won the majority of plate races in the past  three years (seven of twelve), and Jimmie won two of four last season on his way to the title. Sure, Jimmie hasn't been fastest in practice—but you don't have to be at Daytona.  You have to survive, stay up front, and be there at the end...and with a little help you just might drive off with the checkered flag. If Johnson plays his cards right, he can do that on Sunday. Again.

 

And let's not forget family legacies. If the myth of name tells us anything, it's that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the man to watch.  If nothing else, Junior inherited his late father's ability to draft, lead, and win on superspeedways.  The Bud man has five victories on plate tracks in the past five years, but has been shut out since 2004. Crew Chief Tony Eury, Jr. has the number 8 ready to roll, and Dale will be starting near the front on Sunday.  Look for Junior to hook up with Tony Stewart to draft together; if everything goes according to plan, they'll settle who wins in the last five miles.

 

Of course, practice makes perfect. If practice and qualifying tell us anything, it's that the Yates cars of Ricky Rudd and David Gilliland are the ones to watch.  Gilliland was impressive in last Saturday's Bud Shootout, finishing second to Stewart. Rudd has the experience to win this race, even though the 500 has eluded him in his storied career.  Dale Jarrett scored the last win for a Ford on a plate-track in October 2005 at Talladega, and the Yates teammates will have to work together if either one of them wants to take the checkers Sunday.

 

Don't believe the hype? If media expectations tell us anything, it's that Juan Pablo Montoya is the man to watch.  Before you question how the rookie could possibly be a factor Sunday, consider these facts:  He ran well at Talladega last fall in the ARCA race, giving him valuable experience on the superspeedway.  His number 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge was fourth-fastest in qualifying last Sunday, and he's run well in practice this week.  Most telling of all: He was leading the second of the Duel 150s Thursday before his right-front wheel hub failed.  And yes, leading at Daytona isn't all that hard, especially with draft help.  But it was Montoya's handling that got my attention.  Tony Stewart is known for being a yellow-line racer—a driver able to keep his car down on the yellow line to take the shortest distance around the track.  Thursday, Montoya was out-Stewarting Stewart.  If he can use his wealth of racing experience to stay with the leaders on Sunday, he could be in position to notch his second win at Daytona in three weeks (he was on the winning team for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports-car race).

 

As for the underdogs? If the best of the "also-rans" tells us anything, it's that Kurt Busch is the man to watch.  His number 2 Miller Lite car has been near the top of the speed charts all week.  His was also the most competitive Dodge in both the Shootout and the Duels.  Busch will start fourth Sunday—and though he was mid-pack in Happy Hour, he has proven his ability to get to the front on plate tracks. Doing so at Daytona might give him the edge.

 

Then there's the Saturday drivers. If Saturday's Busch race can tell us anything, it's that Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick will be the men to watch.  Both will get a good feel for race-day conditions, as high winds are expected to persist through the weekend.  The more critical information learned on Saturday will have to do with tire wear.  The Goodyear Eagle tires being used this year are harder on the right side than their predecessors, resulting in diminished grip after only a handful of laps. Buschwackers will have good data to apply to their car setups for Sunday, and Kenseth and Harvick are both quick learners. That said, they're not the only Cup stars with an edge; all the major Cup teams have drivers or cars in the Busch race, so they'll all have access to the same data.

 
And, finally: The track itself. If the Daytona Speedway could tell us anything, it's that he who avoids the "Big One"—a multi-car pileup—will have as much of a chance as anyone to win.  One mistake at Daytona can result in disaster for half the field.  With the new tire compound and a potential for crosswinds in the turns, drivers will have to be cognizant of their positions and in tune with their spotters to know when it's safe to make a move in.  Also, as stated earlier, Chevys have dominated the restrictor-plate races for some time.  Only two Fords have won on the superspeedways in the past five years, so look for the Hendrick, Gibbs, and DEI Chevys to work together in the draft in order to get out front and lead the parade.
 
Well, get to it already! 
 
Okay, okay—my picks for Sunday's Daytona 500:
 
Tony Stewart starts strong, but Jeff Gordon finds a way to get it done for his fourth victory in the Great American Race.  Yeah, I'm biased in Gordon's favor, and I don't take Smoke's chances lightly, but... well, we'll just have to see what happens.
 
Welcome to Fantasy Island.

 

As far as NASCAR Fantasy goes—I play in the Yahoo leagues (team name "All-Americans + 1").  After a dismal season last year, I'm looking to bounce back this go-round.  If you'd like to try your hand at Fantasy NASCAR, I'd suggest joining the Yahoo group (http://racing.fantasysports.yahoo.com/auto). It's free, fun, and easy to play. 

 

How it works: Each week you select drivers from the A, B, and C list.  Pick two A listers, four B's, and two C's.  For the race, you pick one A, two B's, and one C from your selected team.  Points are awarded for qualifying up front, finishing position, and leading laps. (No qualifying points were awarded this week due to the convoluted method used to set the field for the Daytona 500.) Each driver can only be used nine times in a season, so you need to do a little research and change your picks to drivers who are strong at a particular track on any given week.

 

Here's my lineup for the Daytona 500. Good luck!

 

A List: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon

 

B List: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya, David Gilliland

 

C List: Boris Said, David Stremme

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