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.
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