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Daytona 500 Preview: The Great American Race

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Once again, we're back at Daytona and ready to start a new season of NASCAR racing. The Daytona 500, also known as the Great American Race, kicks off each Sprint Cup Series season and is by far the most prestigious event in the sport. The 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway plays host to this annual event and makes for the perfect stage to hold this electrifying race. The track has undergone repaving since NASCAR visited here last season, so the speeds are high, grip is high and excitement will be off the charts this Sunday afternoon. As we saw in this past weekend's Budweiser Shootout, the two-car draft has replaced the usual multi-car draft that we've grown accustomed to seeing at Daytona over the years. When two cars of the right combination hook-up nose to tail and draft together, the speeds can exceed the multi-car (three or more) drafts by as much as 5 to 10 mph. In the past we've seen single-file lines of cars drafting and they will run down a two-car breakaway, but not this year. The combination of the new surface and new nose on the cars has made the performance a little bit different. With drivers shuffling to find the right "dance partner" for 500 miles this Sunday, we won't fall short on the entertainment factor. We should see the record for lead changes in the Daytona 500 set to a new all-time high on Sunday.

This will be our first NASCAR race since the teams loaded up at Homestead last November, and crowned Jimmie Johnson the Sprint Cup champion for the fifth straight season. While super speedway 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 box. We expect most of the teams that ended the 2010 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short off-season. The teams of Roush Fenway Racing would be a good example of this point. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle all put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November. Those three drivers combined for two victories and 11 Top-10 finishes over the last six races of last season. We expect those teams to come running out of the blocks this February. In the opposite sense, some of the teams that struggled through the Chase for the Cup last fall have a lot to prove during Speedweeks. Drivers like Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2011.

Yet again this season we'll continue to examine the loop statistics for each race. Thanks to electronic scoring NASCAR can capture such data as green flag passes, laps in the Top 15, quality passes, average running position and the list goes on and on. These statistics can be a valuable aide in examining our driver group for each track. There really is no better statistical tool for evaluating track specific performance for the field of drivers than the loop data. From these loop stats is derived, through a special formula, the driver rating. This rating takes several of these loop stats into account and translates them into a score for each driver at the particular track. Here are the loop stats for the last 12 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Tony Stewart14.5916575231,413100.7
Kyle Busch19.51,511452611,58199.0
Kurt Busch14.61,519491981,42894.8
Jeff Gordon19.01,459461471,43392.8
Jimmie Johnson20.21,60523331,56791.7
Matt Kenseth14.81,43660461,37691.6
Kevin Harvick14.31,28261791,14188.5
Clint Bowyer12.81,0243611590586.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 15.31,320551101,26286.7
Carl Edwards17.71,7174231,33985.2
Jeff Burton18.01,52047461,21484.9
Ryan Newman21.11,23843341,14081.4
Kasey Kahne15.01,3635181,04981.4
Jamie McMurray21.41,4873361,15781.3
Brian Vickers18.81,029423471680.3
Denny Hamlin23.18945511681480.3
Mark Martin20.31,10630621,10078.0
David Ragan17.187918263977.0
Martin Truex Jr.21.41,134422091876.2
Greg Biffle22.31,054503794173.9

Daytona International Speedway is one of two restrictor-plate tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, and the racing is really unique when compared to the intermediate ovals which make up the bulk of the tracks on the circuit. While no single team seems to dominate at Daytona there are handful of drivers that bring excellent equipment to the Great American Race. The Hendrick Motorsports stable will field fast cars, but that doesn't always equal wins in restrictor-plate racing. Luck certainly plays a part in who will take the checkered flag first this Sunday. As the above statistics show, we do have a handful of drivers from many different stables that have a nose for the front at DIS. 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

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is one of the most successful restrictor-plate racing drivers in the Sprint Cup Series currently. He's led well over 100 laps in the last five super speedway races, and he's won or finished runner-up in the last three straight. The last time the series visited Daytona, the Richard Childress Racing veteran led 28 laps and won the Coke Zero 400 last July. That victory combined with his 2007 Daytona 500 win make him a prime contender to win this race. We look for Harvick to make his usual late push to the front in Sunday's Great American Race.

Kurt Busch -
Amazingly, Busch had never won at Daytona until this past Sunday's Budweiser Shootout. In 20 career (points) starts he's been extremely close to capturing the checkers. Still, little things have kept the Penske Racing veteran out of victory lane at the historic track. Busch has led close to 50 laps in just his last two visits to DIS alone. His nine Top 5's and 11 Top 10's in those 20 career starts show that Busch knows how to race in the draft, his luck has just not pushed him into the lead on the last lap. As he showed in the Bud Shootout, that could change on Sunday. Busch make a very reliable fantasy racing play at the very least.

Jamie McMurray -
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing veteran has been dueling with Kevin Harvick for supremacy of these restrictor-plate tracks for most of the last couple seasons. McMurray has two victories and one runner-up finish in his last five starts on the plate tracks. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet crashed and did not finish in his last visit to Daytona International Speedway, so you know McMurray will be aiming hard for victory lane on Sunday afternoon. McMurray is a two-time Daytona winner and defending Daytona 500 champion so you know he'll be tough to beat.

Clint Bowyer -
The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet has been coming on strong on the super speedways the last couple seasons. Bowyer won the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited a restrictor-plate track, which was Talladega last fall. In just his last four starts between Talladega and Daytona alone, Bowyer has led 75 laps, collected one win and three Top-10 finishes. This up-and-coming driver is just emerging on the ovals like Daytona, so get ahead of the curve and get him in your lineups this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is attempting to shake off another forgettable season at Rick Hendrick Motorsports and with a revamped crew and new crew chief, the No. 88 AMP Energy team should be focused for the 500. Earnhardt boasts seven career wins on the restrictor-plate tracks, so clearly he knows how to race in the draft. While the Hendrick Motorsports icon has a lot of work to do in the upcoming season, he should turn in a great performance in the Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon used to be the Sprint Cup Series' top performer on restrictor-plate tracks. The Hendrick Motorsports legend has 12 victories on the plate tracks, and that's far more than any other active driver. However, his last win on these tracks came in 2007 when he swept Talladega. Since then, it's been a series of heartaches for Gordon and the No. 24 team. Now paired with new crew chief Alan Gustafson, Gordon hopes to reverse his fortunes on the super speedways in 2011. His last trip to Daytona yielded 13 laps led and a brilliant third-place finish.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star ended 2010 on a very high note. With two wins at Phoenix and Homestead, the garage area is buzzing with talk of a title-run for Edwards in 2011. He can get off to a good start at that lofty goal with a good showing in Sunday's Daytona 500. Edwards owns some pretty respectable stats on the restrictor-plate track in recent seasons. His last three trips to Daytona International Speedway have yielded Top-10 finishes, and five of his last seven trips to the 2.5-mile oval have yielded these same results.

Tony Stewart -
As the loop stats show Stewart is the top performer when the Sprint Cup Series visits super speedways. He has four career wins on these huge ovals, with three of them coming at Daytona. While all of those wins at DIS have come at night and not in the Daytona 500, that's no reason to dismiss the No. 14 team on Sunday afternoon. In 24 career starts at this Florida oval, Smoke has led well over 600 laps and maintains a 50 percent Top 10 rate, which is pretty stellar for restrictor-plate racing.

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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is the 2009 Daytona 500 winner and a regular solid performer at this historic 2.5-mile speedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford has four Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to Daytona International Speedway. That makes Kenseth's career Top 10 rate at DIS a robust 46 percent. Considering the momentum that this driver and team is riding off their strong 2010 finish, Kenseth should hit the ground running this season in the Daytona 500.

Kasey Kahne -
As Kahne gets settled in at Red Bull Racing and his new No. 4 team, this first race of the season is a great opportunity for the veteran driver to show his wares to his new boss. Kahne has five Top 10's in his last eight trips to Daytona. In fact, the last time we saw him racing at the Florida oval, he posted a career-best runner-up finish in the Coke Zero 400 last July. The Red Bull Toyotas looked mighty fast in the two-car draft during recent Daytona testing in late January, so we expect Kahne to work closely with his teammate Brian Vickers to get a good finish in this 500-mile event.

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 261 laps led in the last six years at Daytona are second only to Tony Stewart. The finishes haven't followed though. Outside of his 2008 Coke Zero 400 win, Busch has struggled to get finishes equal to his cars on the super speedways. This is the prime reason why the JGR star is in the sleepers list and not the contenders list this week. Busch brings tremendous upside with his fantasy racing selection in the Daytona 500, but an equal amount of risk.

Brian Vickers -
The Red Bull Racing veteran has a lot to live up to in 2011. After sitting out most of last season with a bad case of blood clots, Vickers is back to reclaim his status as a Chase contender in the Sprint Cup Series. Vickers will work closely with new teammate Kasey Kahne to better his No. 83 team and Red Bull Racing as a whole. Vickers owns one restrictor-plate racing win (Talladega 2006) and a 33 percent Top 10 rate on the superspeedways during his Sprint Cup Series career. There's a good chance we'll see him lead laps and race up front on Sunday afternoon.

David Reutimann -
Don't expect to see eye-popping statistics from the Michael Waltrip Racing star on the super speedways. In fact, Reutimann has only two career Top 10's between both Talladega and Daytona. That doesn't relate the speed of his Toyota's or his ability on these large ovals. Reutimann has been coming on of late at these facilities. With fifth- and 11th-place finishes at Daytona and 14th- and fourth-place finishes at Talladega last season, he is coming off his best campaign on the restrictor-plate tracks. We expect Reutimann to hold onto these gains in 2011.

Michael Waltrip -
If you're looking for deep sleeper help in weekly lineup leagues, Waltrip and his No. 15 team may fit the bill. While the owner/driver is only racing part-time this season, he will make starts on all the plate tracks. Waltrip is a three-time winner at DIS and he boasts respectable seventh- and 18th-place finishes in his last two Daytona 500 efforts. While we don't expect to see him challenging for the win come Sunday, the veteran driver could easily sneak into the Top 15.

Paul Menard -
Another driver who's a new face in a new place is Menard. This Sunday's Daytona 500 will mark his debut at Richard Childress Racing. Menard will climb behind the wheel of the No. 27 Chevrolet and make his eighth career Daytona start. In his seven prior starts at DIS, Menard has only managed a career average finish of 21.4. Considering that's a conglomeration of Richard Petty Motorsports, Yates Racing and the old DEI stable, that's far from top notch equipment for super speedway. Richard Childress and the new team will likely put the best car under Menard that he's ever raced at Daytona. The results should follow.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is a one-time Daytona winner with a respectable career average finish of 16.3 at the huge oval. Still, the reigning Sprint Cup champion has fallen into a bit of a slump at the historic speedway in recent seasons. Johnson has only two Top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway since his big 2006 Daytona 500 victory. Five of those nine starts have resulted in finishes of 30th or worse and three DNF's. If there's a week in the season to put Johnson on the bench, this is it.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has had problems finishing on the restrictor-plate tracks, much like his teammate Kyle Busch, he also brings top notch equipment to Daytona each season. Hamlin has led well over 100 laps for his career at DIS, but has only one Top-10 finish in those 10 races. For different reasons, the good finishes never seem to materialize for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Don't be shocked to see the No. 11 Toyota lead some laps during Sunday's Great American Race, but we doubt that he can finish up there.

A.J. Allmendinger -
The promising Richard Petty Motorsports driver is now the focal point of the two-car stable. Allmendinger will attempt to build on the success he's had the last couple seasons in Sprint Cup Series racing in 2011. However, based on past experience we don't expect the driver of the No. 43 Ford to come charging out of the gates in Sunday's Daytona 500. Allmendinger typically brings pretty good cars to Daytona, but can't seem to get the finishes. In five career starts at the 2.5-mile oval he has only one Top-10 finish compared to three finishes of 32nd or worse.

Mark Martin -
In the "square peg, round hole" category this week, we offer veteran driver Martin. While a shoe-in for the NASCAR Hall of Fame some day and a driver credited with close to 800 starts and 40 Sprint Cup victories, Martin is a no-go for restrictor-plate racing. Martin makes no bones about it either. He despises the three-wide draft of Daytona and will tell anyone with a camera and mic about it. Martin has cracked the Top 10 only once in his last seven trips to Daytona.