Daytona 500 Preview: Junior Nation is Ready for Daytona

Daytona 500 Preview: Junior Nation is Ready for Daytona

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We're set to kick off another season of NASCAR racing, and to get things started we head to the historic Daytona International Speedway for the season opener. The Daytona 500, also known as the Great American Race, kicks off each Sprint Cup Series season and is by far the sport's most prestigious event. Unlike other major sports that end their seasons with the grand finale, NASCAR starts its campaign with the biggest event/spectacle of the season. The 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway plays host to this annual event and makes for the perfect stage to hold this thrilling race. With the offseason rule changes to the Sprint Cup car package, there will be some surprises as the drivers work to find the right combination to make their car work in the draft. If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produce, it's a lot of practice laps with all the exhibition and qualifying races for drivers to become comfortable with their cars. Once drivers get that feel for the new aero package, we should see a lot of three-wide, big-pack racing in this season's Daytona 500.

When we get down to the final 10 laps and crunch time, it will be interesting to see how the drivers mix it up looking for that perfect drafting partner. Pushing and bump drafting are out of the question, so we'll see some precarious drafting, side-drafting and mushrooming lanes of racing as drivers look for any open pavement they can find to get to the

We're set to kick off another season of NASCAR racing, and to get things started we head to the historic Daytona International Speedway for the season opener. The Daytona 500, also known as the Great American Race, kicks off each Sprint Cup Series season and is by far the sport's most prestigious event. Unlike other major sports that end their seasons with the grand finale, NASCAR starts its campaign with the biggest event/spectacle of the season. The 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway plays host to this annual event and makes for the perfect stage to hold this thrilling race. With the offseason rule changes to the Sprint Cup car package, there will be some surprises as the drivers work to find the right combination to make their car work in the draft. If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produce, it's a lot of practice laps with all the exhibition and qualifying races for drivers to become comfortable with their cars. Once drivers get that feel for the new aero package, we should see a lot of three-wide, big-pack racing in this season's Daytona 500.

When we get down to the final 10 laps and crunch time, it will be interesting to see how the drivers mix it up looking for that perfect drafting partner. Pushing and bump drafting are out of the question, so we'll see some precarious drafting, side-drafting and mushrooming lanes of racing as drivers look for any open pavement they can find to get to the front. We'll see the pack racing, and unsettled cars that rattles nerves for 475 miles, then a 25-mile wild sprint to the finish that will have the top contenders climbing over one another to get to the checkered flag first.

This will be our first race since teams loaded up at Homestead last November and crowned Kevin Harvick the Sprint Cup Series champion for the first time. While superspeedway racing isn't by itself completely indicative of what we can expect for the entire season, it does give us a good preview of who has the horsepower, handling and teamwork flowing right out of the gate. We expect most of the teams that ended the 2014 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short offseason and right into the Daytona 500.

The teams of Joe Gibbs Racing are a good example of this point. Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin both put together consistent streaks as the season closed last November. Those two combined for eight Top-10 finishes over last season's final five races. Not to be outdone, Penske Racing's duro, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, grabbed one victory and six Top-10 finishes over those final five events. Expect those teams to come running out of the blocks this February. In the opposite sense, some teams that struggled through the Chase for the Cup last fall have a lot to prove during Speedweeks. Drivers like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2015.

Before we dive into the driver picks, let's take a minute to look at the loop statistics for Daytona International Speedway. The loop stats are the numbers from NASCAR's electronic timing and scoring from past races. They can track virtually any statistic possible in auto racing. For the purpose of our examination we've chosen to look at average finish, quality passes, fastest laps, laps led and laps in the Top 15 and the driver rating derived from those. These stats are indicative of the best performing drivers at a particular oval. From these and other numbers NASCAR derives the driver rating. From an overall performance standpoint, it's a great measure of track specific performance. Here are the loop stats for the last 20 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch19.12,869853292,48896.2
Matt Kenseth15.72,473782982,24791.6
Kurt Busch16.32,724712742,16190.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13.52,772871742,27990.3
Tony Stewart16.71,729765511,91787.9
Jeff Gordon19.22,407621832,07487.1
Jimmie Johnson20.82,425431592,21487.0
Denny Hamlin19.62,048812531,70386.4
Clint Bowyer15.91,910781511,54183.7
Joey Logano19.81,7133671,03082.5
Kasey Kahne18.62,44671291,81882.2
Greg Biffle20.32,063781341,83081.3
Kevin Harvick17.42,003871001,64379.9
Carl Edwards19.12,59772121,83179.8
Ryan Newman19.31,87170991,60079.6
Jamie McMurray21.22,67555391,79079.5
Austin Dillon15.024719122077.0
Brian Vickers18.81,392533496377.0
Martin Truex Jr.23.22,15164621,65875.5
Brad Keselowski20.01,454463786175.4

In this race last year, we had our second Daytona 500 in the new generation stock car. With some new NASCAR rules in place and the added experience of a year of racing in the Gen-6 car, we saw an entertaining season opener. There were 42 lead changes among 18 drivers. Those were better numbers than the previous four Daytona races and a real reflection of how competitive this race was at the end of 200 laps. When the dust settled we saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. hang on for dear life in a classic battle with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to snap his nine-season winless drought at DIS. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet led 54 laps that day and set the pace for most of the 500 miles, so it was simply Earnhardt's day on NASCAR's biggest stage. It ended up being one of the most thrilling races of the entire season. How can we top that in 2015? Given the new car package and aerodynamic rule changes, we believe they will. Pack racing should be back once again, and single-file riding should be at a minimum. As the above electronic scoring statistics show, we have a handful of drivers from many different stables that have a nose for the front at the Daytona oval. We'll outline the usual suspects at Daytona as well as a few drivers who may surprise on Sunday and give you the edge that you need to win your fantasy racing leagues for the Daytona 500.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Junior nation got the long-awaited victory at Daytona it was waiting for last February. Earnhardt's impressive performance and win gave him his third career Daytona victory and first win in the Daytona 500 since 2004. The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team is always a strong performer in these superspeedway races, and Earnhardt's resume on these ovals is nearing legendary status. If he hopes to repeat and defend his Daytona 500 title, he'll have to do it with a new crew chief. Steve Letarte is gone and now Earnhardt will look to Greg Ives for the leadership and support to win. Given that Earnhardt owns eight career restrictor-plate track victories, it's hard to bet against him.

Brad Keselowski -
With Keselowski's torrid performance in the Chase last season, the Penske Racing star came close to winning his second championship. A clutch victory at Talladega in October in order to advance in NASCAR's postseason does not escape our attention. While Keselowski has never won at Daytona, he now owns three career wins at the sister oval in Talladega. The tracks have their differences, but the racing is much the same. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has had his close calls with victory lane at Daytona, and last season's third-place finish in the Daytona 500 is a good example. Two seasons ago he led 13 laps and finished fourth in the 2013 installment of the Great American Race. From where we're sitting, it's just a matter of time before Keselowski checks this accomplishment off his list.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star's lone victory in 2014 came on a superspeedway with his big win at Talladega last spring. That was Hamlin's first win in a points event on a restrictor-plate track, but doesn't undersell his abilities to race on superspeedways. Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota dominated much of Speedweeks at Daytona last year. He won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race, won his Gatorade Duel qualifying race and finished a brilliant runner-up in the Daytona 500. Hamlin will hope to carry that momentum forward to this season's Daytona 500. Considering that he's led 253 career laps at this speedway and has three very noteworthy Top-5 finishes at this facility, Hamlin does race up front here by mistake. He has a knack for racing in the draft and is just waiting for the perfect opportunity to capture his first Daytona 500 win.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is one of the most successful restrictor-plate racing drivers in the series. With three career victories on superspeedways, including two Daytona wins, the defending Sprint Cup champion knows what it takes to capture the checkered flag at these huge ovals. Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500 and finished runner-up in the 2009 Great American Race, so he's quite comfortable with performing on this big stage. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet boasts some of the best performance stats of anyone in NASCAR the last few seasons at Daytona International Speedway. His 79.9 driver rating at this oval needs some work, but that's mainly a function of being collected in some unfortunate, multi-car crashes. We expect to see Harvick battling it out with the leaders for the full 500-miles of action this Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500 winner and a regular solid performer at this historic 2.5-mile superspeedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star hopes to grab that third Daytona 500 trophy this weekend. He didn't lead any laps in the Great American Race last season, which was the rare exception, but he finally finished sixth at the end of the day. Kenseth has cracked the Top 10 in three of his last six trips to Daytona International Speedway, and he's led 238 laps during this span. The veteran driver was easily one of the most consistent drivers in the series on the superspeedways last season, yet he lacked the wins to underscore it. Maybe Kenseth's luck turns to the positive in this huge race.

Ryan Newman -
The veteran Richard Childress Racing driver is the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, and a current strong performer at the historic Florida oval. Newman doesn't have the best career-long numbers at DIS, but his last five trips to Daytona Beach have netted a pair of Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes. Those numbers dovetail nicely with his superspeedway performance in general. Three of his last six starts on restrictor-plate race tracks have netted Top-10 finishes. His last start was an impressive Top-5 finish at Talladega Superspeedway last October. Newman should kick off this new season in good fashion.

Joey Logano -
Coming off a career-best season and near brush with the championship, Logano has to be pretty pumped up about the start of the new season. He recorded career highs with 16 Top 5s and 22 Top 10s and made his second Chase for the Cup field. All that aside, his recent superspeedway racing heading into this weekend has been a bit hit-or-miss, but the Daytona numbers have remained strong. Logano has two Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at Daytona International Speedway. The young driver has shown a real improvement in recent seasons in racing in the draft, so we're certain he'll be among the leaders in the season-opener at DIS.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is one of the most consistent superspeedway drivers of the past few years. Bowyer sports a strong 44-percent career Top-10 rate at Daytona International Speedway. That includes fourth-, 11th- and ninth-place finishes in three of his last four trips to DIS. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota racked up three-straight Top 10s in his final three superspeedway races of 2014, so Bowyer is carrying momentum on these style ovals into the new season. The veteran driver owns two career Talladega victories so it's clear he knows how to race and get to the front in these big multi-car packs at Daytona.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Daytona who can provide a solid finish

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time champion has a very up-and-down history with superspeedway racing and Daytona in particular. The loop stats bear a respectable 87.0 driver rating but that doesn't account for his inconsistency at the large oval. Johnson swept both Daytona races in 2013, so he's quite capable of dominating if he can avoid the accidents. After winning the Daytona 500 two years ago, he returned in 2014 to lead 15 laps and finish a brilliant fifth. But temper that against the five DNF's he's had in the last 10 Daytona races. As Darrell Waltrip would say it's either "checkers or wreckers" for the No. 48 team at Daytona International Speedway.

Austin Dillon -
The young driver has a brief Sprint Cup resume but lots of success at Daytona to rely on. Dillon won the pole for last year's Great American Race, and he finished a surprising ninth after 500-miles of action. He returned in the summer and showed even more skill in capturing an impressive fifth-place finish in the Coke Zero 400. For good measure, Dillon stayed out of the wrecks and claimed a pair of Top-15 finishes at the other superspeedway in Talladega last season. The No. 3 Chevrolet team appears to be very much on their game on these big ovals. Richard Childress Racing has prided themselves on their restrictor-plate racing program for years, so Dillon has homerun potential in this race.

Kurt Busch -
The 2011 Budweiser Shootout winner gets another shot at that elusive Daytona 500 victory this weekend. Busch has battled a lot of off-the-track issues this off-season so he'll be happy to climb back inside a race car at Daytona. His expertise on superspeedways is well documented. Busch has never won a race on these big ovals, but he's cracked the Top 10 an amazing 28 times in 56 starts between Daytona and Talladega. Anything approaching 50-percent for a Top-10 rate on these high risk ovals is well above average. Busch should have no trouble continuing his superspeedway excellence with the No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing team.

Greg Biffle -
While 2014 was a down season in general at Roush Fenway Racing, Biffle and the No. 16 Ford team shook off that label and had good showings at the restrictor-plate race tracks. Biffle's team unloaded a fast car during Speedweeks last season and he led 8 laps before finishing eighth in the Great American Race. It was his third Top 10 in the last six Daytona events. He had an equally fast race car in the spring Talladega race and led a whopping 58 laps before finishing runner-up to Denny Hamlin in last year's Aaron's 499. Biffle has the experience and apparently the speed to race up front each time the Sprint Cup Series visits on of these huge ovals.

Jamie McMurray -
With four career victories between Daytona and Talladega, McMurray has proven his superspeedway racing expertise. His last visit to victory lane came in the fall of 2013 at Talladega in a strong performance. The No. 1 team of Ganassi Racing is on the rise, and McMurray should put in a strong outing in the Great American Race. He cracked the Top 15 in this event one year ago. Last summer, his last visit to Daytona, McMurray led 11 laps and looked like a potential candidate to win the Coke Zero 400 before an unlucky, late crash took him out. We believe that's the driver and team we'll see this Sunday afternoon at Daytona. Hopefully, his luck will be much better this time around.

Danica Patrick -
The very popular Stewart Haas Racing driver has her struggles on the intermediate ovals, but her short track skills are improving with time and her superspeedway racing is probably the best aspect of her NASCAR resume. Patrick has one pole position, two Top 10s and three Top 15s in her last four Daytona starts. Couple that with her seven laps led and Top-20 finish at Talladega last fall, and you get the picture that she is racing competitively on these large speedways. The one big statistic to key in on is that Patrick has only two DNF's in her nine career starts between Daytona and Talladega, so she's finishing these volatile races with the fenders intact. In this very high stakes form of racing, sometimes that all you can ask of your lower lineup fantasy racing drivers.

Casey Mears -
One of the more surprising names that have enjoyed some restrictor-plate racing success is Mears. The Germain Racing veteran has claimed three Top-10 finishes in his last four Daytona starts. In addition, the driver of the No. 13 Chevrolet claimed 14th- and 10th-place finishes at Talladega last season. This team's recent affiliation with Richard Childress Racing has really upped their performance at the ovals of Daytona and Talladega. With Mears' 12 years of experience in Cup cars, he's the kind of veteran you want at the bottom of your fantasy racing lineup for this 500-mile event.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's 12 career victories on the restrictor-plate race tracks leads all active drivers by a wide margin. But he hasn't won on a superspeedway since 2007 and he hasn't won at Daytona since 2005, so we have to put all that past success in its proper context. The No. 24 team's performance on these big ovals has been less than impressive in recent years. Gordon's last six superspeedway races have only yielded three Top-15 finishes vs. three outside the Top 25. His scant, 10 laps led over the last seven events on these huge ovals is another piece of evidence of the team's struggles. Gordon is great almost any weekend of the season, but it's good to use some selective caution at Daytona.

Tony Stewart -
As the loop stats show Stewart is a top performer when the Sprint Cup Series visits superspeedways. He has five career victories on these huge ovals, with four of them coming at Daytona. However, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is coming off the most difficult two-season stretch in his racing career. The struggles can be seen in his results. The last four starts between Daytona and Talladega have seen Smoke finish outside the Top-30 in each event. Two of those were frustrating DNF's due to being caught up in multi-car crashes. While Stewart has the pedigree and the potential, he's got a lot to prove before we can lean on him for trusted fantasy racing performance.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star's success on the restrictor-plate tracks over the years has been sporadic at best. Kahne has a lowly 32-percent Top-10 rate at Daytona and an even lower 23-percent rate at Talladega. So it's not to say he doesn't have Top-10 potential only that his skill and luck haven't added up to much success on these ovals over the years. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet's recent Daytona sampling shows only one Top 10 in his last five trips to Daytona Beach. Generally speaking, his career performance in the Daytona night race held each July is better than his Daytona 500 outings. For whatever reason, some drivers just perform better under the lights, and Tony Stewart is a prime example of this at Daytona as well.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team unloads some of the fastest cars at restrictor-plate tracks of anyone in the series the last few seasons. That fact is undeniable. Busch's 329 laps led in the last 10 years at Daytona are second only to Tony Stewart. The finishes haven't typically followed though. This fact alone is our reason for listing Busch in the slow down list for Daytona 500 weekend. He hasn't visited the Top 10 at DIS in his last six trips, and his career 30-percent Top-10 rate at the huge oval is less than reassuring. Busch could be a high-reward driver, but he's also a very high-risk driver at Daytona International Speedway.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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