Fans and racers alike were learning all they could during Saturday's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway. Gone are the days of tandem drafts, but new rule changes to create packs of drafting made cars slightly unstable. Drivers were unable to bump one another as hard as they used to, and a number of spins resulted from even the slightest contact.
Despite the changes, much still remained the same. The top teams seemed to flex some muscle. Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Hendrick all took turns out front, while defending champions Stewart-HAAS also came to the forefront. The pack racing that the current aerodynamics package produces is expected to create plenty of excitement this week.
Qualifying saw Roush Fenway Racing cars sweep the front row. Carl Edwards will start Sunday's Daytona 500 from the top position, with teammate Greg Biffle alongside. Edwards said he wanted to come back from losing the championship last year to dominate, and after drawing first blood with a pole he could be on track.
This Sunday will feature twice as many cars, and probably more damaged sheet metal as a result. The 2012 season is set to kick off with a bang at Daytona.
Tony Stewart - Stewart picked up last weekend at Daytona right where he left off at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November. He was forced to start Saturday's Shootout in a repaired car after a practice crash, but he quickly found himself running at the front of the pack. In the final restart, Kyle Busch pushed Stewart to a commanding lead. The two worked together to make it a two-car fight for the victory, but in the end Stewart lost by a nose. By making smart moves and not pushing anyone else too hard, Stewart preserved his car for the finish, and it nearly paid off with a win. He does not own a Daytona 500 trophy, but with so many other triumphs at the Speedway, it might be time he earns that elusive win.
Kevin Harvick - For much of Saturday night's 75-lap Shootout, Harvick looked like he could make a pass at will. Harvick excels at running well at restrictor-plate races, and when he has the right equipment to work with, he is the man to beat. Knowing that, Harvick's competitors will have to formulate a plan to the beat the No. 29 his week. He sold his racing teams to focus on winning the 2012 Sprint Cup, and this season may be the most determined Harvick has been. That notion must be a sobering thought for competitors that saw him finish third in last year's Chase.
Kyle Busch - Two spins, a damaged front air dam and plenty of action throughout 75 laps was not enough to keep "Rowdy" out of Victory Lane. Busch made two amazing saves, avoiding the wall and other cars, after being spun when the pushers behind him tried the bump. Proving once again how great a talent he has at the wheel, Busch dusted himself off and pushed Stewart to the lead in the final laps. He wasn't content with that, though. Just before the tri-oval on the final lap, Busch made the move that gave him just enough momentum to nip Smoke at the line, claiming the first trophy of the year for Joe Gibbs Racing. He will expect even more as the week progresses.
Brad Keselowski - Keselowski must change his approach this year. He was successful in 2011, scoring three wins and 10 top-fives. This season, he is the senior driver at Penske Racing and needs to take the reins of leadership, while also sharing all that he can to get A.J. Allmendinger up to speed. The young Keselowski probably never imagined himself as the senior driver this early in his career, and it will be a challenge to act like a leader to someone like Allmendinger. While he fared well head-to-head against Kurt Busch, he was the underdog of that team. Allmendinger will challenge Keselowski's claim as team leader from the onset, and the pressure could present a challenge. Until then, look for the No. 2 to continue delivering top finishes.
Kasey Kahne - Despite not finishing well in Saturday night's show, Kahne is in good equipment, with a strong backing. Kahne drives for Hendrick Motorsports now, and 2012 could be the first season we get to see what he truly has to offer. In the past, Kahne has been forced to deal with underfunded teams or inferior equipment. Still, he owns 12 winner's trophies and has a career average finish of 17.2 at Daytona International Speedway. Kahne could be an underrated driver for the 2012 season, and he might prove his potential this week. Watch how he progresses in the Duels on Thursday, but remain confident that he'll find his way forward Sunday.
Clint Bowyer - With just one top-five in his last five Daytona starts, Bowyer is a driver to avoid in this weekend's Daytona 500. While restrictor-plate racing can create some surprises, some drivers seem to always get caught in a melee. Bowyer is one of those drivers. Bowyer's average Daytona finish in the last five starts was 20.6, despite a starting average of just 9.6. He finished eighth in the Budweiser Shootout but never looked like a contender for the win. Bowyer was a mid-pack car at best, and his new team has plenty of work to do if it wants to move its car forward in Sunday's race, especially after failing post-qualifying inspection.
Jamie McMurray - Despite winning the Daytona 500 in 2010, McMurray sunk the following season. After winning the season's biggest races, 2011 was a season to forget for the Missouri native. He finished a dismal 27th in points with just two top-five finishes. McMurray is a solid racer in the draft, and can usually find a way to the front. Additionally, the beating that Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing took last year forced them to focus on turning the program around in 2011. The ground they've covered in that effort remains to be seen, but this first week should give fantasy owners pause. Like some of the other drivers who failed to meet expectations in 2011, wait to see some momentum before making the selection.
David Ragan - Despite winning his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 2011, the effort was not enough to keep Ragan's seat with Roush Fenway Racing. The team had supported Ragan for four years with little to show for its efforts. While Ragan was an up and comer, he never achieved the lofty heights laid out for him. In 2012 he will run with Front Row Motorsports, an underfunded team. Ragan will not be used to the lack of support that comes with being at a small team, and despite at least two years of pressure to perform at Roush, he may find it even harder to achieve results in his new surroundings. He started the Budweiser Shootout, but only claimed 24th position of the 25 entrants.
Martin Truex Jr. - Truex competed in the Budweiser Shootout Saturday night, but, like most drivers, ended in a crash. Michael Waltrip Racing has come a fair distance since its inception, and the cars seem to be consistently fast at both Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. Truex, however, does not have an enviable record at the Florida track. His last four races have only resulted in one top-10 finish, with an average result of 23.8. Trouble seems to reach out and grab the No. 56 Toyota regardless of how strong the car is performing at Daytona. His qualifying lap was seventh fastest, but Daytona is often about survival as well as speed.
Danica Patrick - Qualifying 30th was probably not what Patrick wanted for her Sprint Cup debut. She will race through the Gatorade Duels, working to learn all that she can, but it is a steep hill to climb. She raced in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010 and 2011, scoring her best Daytona finish in 2011 when she came home an impressive seventh in July. She only ran as low as 13th that day, and led 13 laps. Clearly, she is learning and improving, but the step to Sprint Cup is a large one. This year's Daytona 500 is all about learning, and if she simply finishes, it should be considered a success. Fantasy owners, however, should look for much more than that.
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