This week kicks off the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with the marquee event, the Daytona 500. Not only are there changes to the championship format, but the field is full of new drivers and new chassis, but NASCAR decided to throw a new qualifying format at the teams as well. In fact, qualifying for the Daytona 500 also involves a change in that the traditional Thursday Duel races will take place in prime time, under the lights.
After a busy week at Daytona International Speedway, getting the ball rolling with Media Day on Wednesday, the cars hit the track for the first competition Saturday night with the Sprint Unlimited. First blood went to Denny Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing with that win, but Richard Childress staked a claim on glory when Austin Dillon captured pole for the 500 with his qualifying effort Sunday. The Duels will set the order for Sunday's first offering of points in a season where race winners will be rewarded handsomely.
Let's look ahead just a bit and see who has momentum on their side, and who may need a bit more warming up.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin started 2014 just like he ended 2013, winning. After a 2013 to forget, Hamlin carried momentum from his season-finale Miami victory into last weekend's Sprint Unlimited. Two victories in the last two races bolster the argument that when Hamlin wins, he usually wins multiple times in quick succession. With just one Top-5 finish, Hamlin's average finish isn't that great at 18.4 through his last five Daytona points races. He won the Budweiser Shootout in his first try in 2006, and also took a win in his Duel in 2008. Last week's win tallies three victories at the track. He said he was looking forward to putting 2013 in the rearview mirror, and so far he is doing just that.
Ryan Newman - After making his way to Daytona late because of the snowstorm moving across the country, Newman impressed when he got behind the wheel. His compressed timeline and a new team didn't seem to affect his speed, though. Richard Childress Racing seems to have rediscovered its edge with the new restrictor plate package and put Dillon's No. 3 on pole for Sunday. Newman was no slouch either, and his experience in this race makes him a solid choice this week, despite how much has changed for him since 2013. Newman's last five Daytona races have produced two top-5s, three top-10s and a 12.8 average finish. While not atop everyone's list for a top pick this week, Newman should deliver based on what he has shown thus far.
Kevin Harvick - With one Top-5, three Top-10s and an average finish of 16.4 in his last five points races at Daytona, Harvick could be a valuable fantasy option this week. This is a driver who understands the draft and how to work his way forward for the money lap. He won last year's Sprint Unlimited and didn't fare too poorly in this year's edition. Harvick is one of many drivers with a new team this season, but those new surroundings are stocked with many familiar faces. One might argue that he could be even more comfortable at Stewart-Haas Racing than he ever was at Childress. Last season, his last at Richard Childress Racing, was a lame duck year in which Harvick still conspired to deliver result. This year he should be in store for more.
Kurt Busch - After spending the last two seasons making hay with underfunded teams, Busch returns with an organization that has the resources to truly support a championship effort. His performance with Furniture Row Racing in 2013 showed what Busch is made of, carrying the team into the Chase against the heavy hitters in the series. While Busch can be hit or miss, he is a solid racer at restrictor-plate tracks. He claimed a win in the 2011 Budweiser Shootout, but Victory Lane at Daytona has been a distant stretch for him otherwise. Still, he pushed Ryan Newman to his Daytona 500 win in 2008 and consistently runs up front at the Florida track. Busch is one to watch this season, starting this weekend.
Matt Kenseth - After a tremendous first season with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, Kenseth is back to add a bit more consistency to his arsenal to challenge for the 2014 title. His teammate won last week's Sprint Unlimited, and while JGR hasn't had the power of the Childress engines, in Sunday's 500-mile race that difference will narrow. A win and three top-5s in his last five Daytona points races help Kenseth to a 15.2 average result in that time, with just one DNF. In the somewhat unpredictable environment of Daytona, Kenseth can generally be relied upon as a beacon of consistency. Thursday's Duels will show where the JGR competitors are versus the competition, but based on past results Kenseth could be in store for more good things this season.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon's recent Daytona record almost requires him to be overlooked when thinking of fantasy options for this week's race. The veteran driver has an average finish of just 22.4 in his last five Daytona starts, including a lone Top-10 and two DNFs. Gordon was very pragmatic when questioned about the new Chase format, saying that regardless of what format determines the champion, the best team will win, and the field will still need to figure out how to beat Jimmie Johnson. He also said that he would retire if he were to win another championship, which signals that Gordon is starting to consider winding things down. While he will probably be a Chase contender this year, Gordon isn't the one you want on your roster this weekend.
Martin Truex Jr. - One hates to give a thumbs down to Truex this week after such a strong qualifying effort. His Furniture Row Racing team also knows how to produce a fast restrictor-plate machine, making this decision even more difficult. Sure, Truex will start from the front row Sunday, but his last five races at Daytona have produced absolutely no top finishes. He recorded two DNFs in that span and tallied a disappointing 25.8 average finish. Busch did great things with Furniture Row in 2013. The team knows how to get to Victory Lane, but this week looks like David versus Goliath. While Truex certainly has a shot, he isn't the most confident choice for fantasy owners this week.
Jamie McMurray - McMurray found some redemption in 2013, recording a win and a pole after being locked out of Victory Lane for the prior two seasons. He finished sixth in last week's Sprint Unlimited after starting second. His last five Daytona points races have produced just one Top-10, though. His average finish in that time is 21.0, and he finished off the lead lap two of those five tries. McMurray could be part of a team ready to finally take a step forward in 2014, but his the lack of success with Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates the last few years make him a less than optimal choice to kick off the season. The No. 1 team is one to watch with an interested eye as the season unwinds, but may present too much of a risk in the first week.
Danica Patrick - Last year's Daytona 500 pole sitter will start her 2014 effort from the back of the field. A blown engine in practice earlier in the week means no matter where Patrick qualifies, she will be forced to start from the rear. At NASCAR Media Day she spent more time answering questions about Richard Petty than her prospects for the upcoming season. One interesting discussion was about how she and her new teammates Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick would get along under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. She admitted that all the SHR drivers are "strong personalities." We shall see how that works. Most would agree that Tony Stewart will keep the peace, but will Busch and Harvick elevate Patrick's game? The jury is out.
Kyle Busch - OK, we hear you. Some will say Busch can't possibly surprise. However, what makes Busch a surprise this week at Daytona is his finishing record at the track. In the last five Daytona 500s he has only recorded an average finish of 18.4. The No. 18 also failed to finish in the Top 15 in each of the last three points races at the beach. He has won some non-points events, though, plus his teammate won last week's Sprint Unlimited. Busch certainly has the machinery to get to Victory Lane this year, and he can leverage the knowledge gained across the Joe Gibbs Racing garage throughout Speedweeks. If Busch can keep his nose clean, he might be the one making the move for the win late Sunday.