A new year is upon us, and NASCAR Sprint Cup has taken to the high banks Daytona International Speedway for the traditional kick off to the season. The Sprint Unlimited has been run, and single-car qualifying for the Daytona 500 is behind us. It is February, and that means it is time for engines to fire up in anger for NASCAR's biggest race.
This season features a new car, the sixth generation chassis. These new cars have proven to be a handful in the draft, and drivers are trying hard to figure out how best to race them. No single car has broken from the field, and some of the most powerful cars have been unable to work their way back into the front once they've lost the lead. There will be plenty of mistakes made as drivers learn how to leverage their strengths, and who doesn't want to be watching when those lessons are learnt?
Tony Stewart - Stewart finished fourth in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited. Most remarkable, he was nearly involved in two accidents, pulling off amazing saves that left anyone watching amazed. Stewart has always been one of the best racers at Daytona, winning many times at the track, but the Daytona 500 has eluded him. With one of his employees sitting on pole, we know the Stewart-HAAS Racing cars are fast, and with his close calls in the Unlimited we know that he is learning most of what these new generation cars can and can't do in traffic. Stewart is always looked at as a favorite in Daytona, but this could be the year he brings home the goods.
Matt Kenseth - Having the fastest car in Saturday's Sprint unlimited didn't pay dividends for Kenseth. When he was out front of the field, he was difficult to catch, and even more troublesome to pass. When the car was buried in the pack, however, no competitor could stick with the No. 20 long enough to get out front again. As the drivers learn how to leverage the strengths of the new design, this will change. Given the power of the Toyota in Kenseth's Joe Gibbs Racing garage, he will have a leg up when the drivers do figure it out. For this reason, Kenseth is definitely a driver to beat at Daytona.
Greg Biffle - Biffle looked to be the strongest of the Roush Fenway Racing cars in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited. He only led two laps that night, but finished second to Kevin Harvick. The No. 16 car ran toward the front of the pack all evening, and never made a mistake. The experience of getting those 75 racing laps under his belt could make him an even more formidable competitor Thursday in the Duels, and then again Sunday in the big race. He scored 21 top-10 finishes last season, and finished 98.7 percent of the year's laps. He finished third in last year's protracted Daytona 500 and has a 19.4 average finish in the last five Daytona races.
Paul Menard - While not the name most people would think of at Daytona, Menard has the best average finish of any Cup driver at the track in the last four points races. With three top-10 finishes, and a 9.2 average result, Menard has arguably been the most consistent driver at what can be a very inconsistent track. He qualified 14th fastest Sunday and won't have to worry too much about racing through Thursday's Duel. Menard took a big step forward in results last season with Richard Childress Racing, scoring the best points finish of his career in 16th. He also racked up the most lead lap finishes, best average finish and top-10s of his career last season.
Joey Logano - Logano was a question mark at the end of 2012. He was leaving Joe Gibbs Racing for the championship-winning Penske Racing organization. While joining Penske would typically be worthy of an Upgrade, Logano looked headed the opposite direction after consistently underperformed at Gibbs. Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited was a display of quiet confidence from the young driver, though. As he grows in confidence, and familiarizes himself with the winning ways of the new team, Logano could finally live up to the hype. He should definitely not be counted out at Daytona, where Penske has a history of producing top finishing cars, even if the wins have been scarcer.
Jimmie Johnson - It is difficult to put Johnson into the Downgrade column, but crashing out of Sunday's Sprint Unlimited is representative of what we have come to expect from the No. 48 at Daytona. He finished just two of his last four Daytona races, and only one of those finishes was on the lead lap. He didn't score any top finishes in those tries, and you have to look back to 2009 to see the last top-10 finish he scored in a points race at the track, ninth in the Coke Zero 400. If he avoids crashes and keeps the car running he will definitely be a contender, but history has proven that he is usually one to be caught up in misfortune.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer is another driver who has had a hard time finishing in the top 10 at Daytona recently. In the last four races his average finish is 23.2, with just two lead-lap finishes and two DNFs. Bowyer put together an impressive first season with Michael Waltrip Racing last year, finishing second in the Chase, 39 points behind champion Brad Keselowski. He scored three wins, 10 top-5s and 23 top-10s to pull that off. He hasn't finished in the top-10 at Daytona since he ran fourth in the 2010 Daytona 500. Bowyer will contend if he successfully navigates the trouble throughout 500 miles, but the ups and downs of restrictor plate racing are unpredictable.
Carl Edwards - Edwards is coming off of the worst season of his career. It was the first season in three years where he failed to win a race. He tallied just three top-5s and 13 top-10s, compared to 19 top-5s and 26 top-10s the year before. Edwards was one of the few who was able to get 75 laps in Saturday night, but he also finished last of the cars still on the lead lap. He wrecked multiple cars since Daytona Speedweeks began, and his team was worked to its limits with repairs. It may take some time for Edwards to regain his swagger, and the accidents won't do much to help restore his confidence. Edwards isn't the most appealing option until there is a turnaround backed up by top finishes.
Juan Pablo Montoya - Perhaps best known at Daytona as the driver who started last year's delay after crashing into a jet dryer, Montoya is also coming off of one of the worst seasons of his NASCAR career. Last year he scored just two top-10 finishes, scoring his lowest season points total since he joined the circuit full-time in 2007. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing was simply a disappointment in 2012 and has a ton work ahead to change direction. This new car could give the team a chance to close the gap and put it on a more level playing field with the series leaders, but does it have what it takes? The extra experience he gained in the Sprint Unlimited should help, but don't expect Montoya to dominate the field in the 500.
Danica Patrick - While all the conversation on media day was about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse, the conversation Sunday was about her speed. Patrick qualified on pole, and will race Thursday's Duel without fear of having to qualify for the Daytona 500. Still, she hasn't exactly posted the numbers others have at Daytona. In fact, she started on pole there once before with JR Motorsports. In that 2012 Nationwide race, she finished 38th. For five average starts at the track of 6.0, her average finishes have certainly not matched at 25.6, including two DNFs. With just one Nationwide top-10 finish at Daytona, she isn't a pole sitter likely to take the car home to Victory Lane.
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Radune was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.