The Bud Shootout and single-car qualifying behind us, we now have a clearer view of who should be in contention this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
The Bud Shootout saw the first real drafting with the new superspeedway combination. Two-car drafts were the order of the night, with nothing more than two cars linked together being able to make a charge for the front. There were a few instances of drivers who built up enough momentum to sling shot into the lead, however those bursts of speed never lasted, and the draft pairs quickly swallowed those runners alive. Only toward the end of the race did any draft involve more than two cars nose to tail, and any observer would have been hard pressed to say what developed at that point was anything more that two drafting pairs running the same groove.
So what does that tell us about the big race this weekend? It tells us that a drafting partner will be key to winning the race. It also tells us that who leads and who trails at any given time could be more about luck than strategy compared to years past. Teams will look to pit under green with just one other car rather than attempting to coordinate groups of runners. You may also find a number of drivers trying to cozy up to Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing cars. The Toyotas are fast, but the Chevrolets hung in there, and it was a Dodge that won the Shootout. Look for more parity, and perhaps the closest Daytona 500 ever.
Kevin Harvick - Picking up just where he left off in 2010, Harvick made his presence felt Saturday night at Daytona. The new sponsor and look for Harvick did not alter his ability to show up as the race wore on and the stakes rose higher. If Harvick can pick up his performance just one small notch, he may be the one to challenge Jimmie Johnson in 2011. In the near term, however, Harvick will be focused on earning his second Daytona 500 victory. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 at Daytona since the 2009 Coke Zero 400. His average finish in his last five Daytona starts is 3.6. After seeing his skill in two-car drafts Saturday night, fantasy owners should expect a lot from Harvick this Sunday.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin came awfully close to winning his second Bud Shootout on Saturday night, and notching his third victory at Daytona. Alas, he was forced below the double-yellow line at the finish, relegating him to 12th place. The Joe Gibbs Racing cars were near the front of the field through Saturday night, and had Kyle Busch not been involved in an accident, it might have been the teammates pushing each other to victory. Hamlin didn't score a top-10 at Daytona in 2010, but in his last seven races at the track he scored two top-5s. Hamlin is not only one to look out for in the Chase, but he is looking strong for this year's Daytona 500 as well.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - NASCAR fans have been waiting to see if the partnership between Earnhardt and Hendrick would finally pay dividends in 2011. Earnhardt won the pole of the Daytona 500 in style Sunday with a lap nearly a tenth of a mile-an-hour faster than teammate Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt is an astute restrictor-plate racer and the ability to focus on race setup during his Duel, as well as all of the accomplishment that comes with being the field's fastest qualifier, should give Earnhardt a leg up on the competition Sunday. He will have to adapt to drafting with just one other car, but Earnhardt has a sense for how this game is played. It is always unwise to bet against an Earnhardt at Daytona.
Kyle Busch - Busch proved that despite crashing out of the Bud Shootout, one can still make the upgrade column for the Daytona 500. Busch played the two-car draft impeccably and likely would have been one of the cars to beat Saturday night. The experience he gained from an unfortunate incident with Mark Martin in turn 3 should serve him well if he is truly on a path to maturity. Busch gained something most drivers did not Saturday night, and the lesson was enforced by an inability to finish. Rest assured that he will analyze what happened as he entered that turn and spun and will come back knowing how to take advantage Sunday. Keep an eye on Busch.
Kasey Kahne - The early stages of the Bud Shootout saw Kahne among the contenders. While a mechanical gremlin cost him a chance at glory, the team will right the problem and make sure Kahne has a stout chariot from which to challenge next week. Kahne qualified just 29th, but the result he was probably looking for is due to come in Thursday's Duels and not single-car runs. Toyota engines have been powerful, and while Toyota may not be the one being pushed to victory Sunday, it will probably be a prime choice to do the pushing. Kahne is an underrated restrictor-plate driver, just like Kurt Busch, and he could turn a few heads with his result Sunday.
Kurt Busch - Perhaps the most underrated restrictor-plate racer on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit is the elder Busch. He had never won at Talladega Superspeedway or Daytona. That was until Saturday night when he took the checkered flag in the Bud Shootout. His career average finish at Talladega is 13.7, and at Daytona is 17.0. Busch and his Penske Racing teammate might be the sole bearers of the Dodge flag this season, but that isn't slowing them down at all. Busch seemed to latch onto the two-car draft concept very quickly, and having pushed many a driver to victory at the two superspeedways, he should have plenty of friends come race day. Look for Busch to be a strong contender for his first Daytona 500 victory.
Joey Logano - Logano had a rough outing in the Bud Shootout and also didn't turn any heads with his qualifying performance. He was caught up in a wreck Saturday evening, but was never a true factor at the front of the field. Logano has just one top-10 result at Daytona, and that was a seventh-place finish in last year's Bud Shootout. Logano's average finish in all of his Sprint Cup starts at the Florida track is just 36.5. He has an even 50/50 split between finishing and wrecking, and fantasy owners will have wanted to see a bit more from the young prospect in this year's Shootout before gifting his a spot in their lineups for next Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr. - Not being able to compete in the Bud Shootout isn't always the worst thing in the world, but it isn't exactly a bonus either. Truex had his team owner in the field, but Truex himself didn't get a taste of the action. What little he learned from testing, and the transfer of knowledge from Michael Waltrip's Shootout effort will be all that he has to rely on until he goes through his Duel on Thursday. Truex scored two top-10 finishes during last week's speed weeks at Daytona, then only managed a 35th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 400 in July. That finish was the result of problems, but Truex must avoid trouble and find a solid partner if he wants to compete Sunday. Fantasy owners might want to leave Truex on the bench this week.
Juan Pablo Montoya - Montoya's aggressive driving style may have cost him again Saturday night. He was involved in an accident that caused him to finish 20th of 24 runners Saturday. Montoya has scored a few top-10s and top-5s in his career at Daytona, but he has never made the breakthrough on any oval. While his aggressive style is suited for road courses and the short tracks, at 200 mph a softer touch is often necessary. Montoya was the 12th fastest when he was alone on the track over a single lap, but that speed will need help from drafting partners in the Duel on Thursday and the big one Sunday. Such an aggressive nature may play against him unless his speed is too much to ignore.
Brian Vickers - The feel-good story of 2011 may not result in fantasy points in the first race of the year. Vickers missed most of last season with blood clots and made a miraculous recovery to be back in the saddle for the start of the 2011 campaign. Vickers left the sport as one of the promising bright stars of the near future, but with so much time out of the cockpit, he'll need some time to adjust. Gone are the spoilers he last raced with, and in are new rules, new fuel and a new teammate. While Vickers certainly is not a driver to overlook this season, his first race of the year will be more of a level-setting exercise. Don't expect too much from him this first race back, but be surprised when he does exceed your expectations.