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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.

The short offseason behind us, we head back to the Mecca of racing, Daytona Beach, for the start of a new NASCAR season. 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. As we saw in last weekend's Budweiser Shootout, the two-car draft has been greatly reduced in duration and the old-school, multi-car draft that once was the rule at superspeedways is back in effect. We'll see a lot of three-wide, big-pack racing in this season's Daytona 500. Once we get to the final 10 laps, that's when the partnerships will form and we'll see drivers pair off in tandems to push to the front and eventually win. With drivers shuffling like mad to find the right "dance partner" in those final laps, we won't fall short on the excitement factor. We will likely see the best of both worlds this weekend. The pack racing, and unsettled cars that fray nerves for 475 miles, then a 25-mile sprint to the finish, which will see the top contenders roll the dice and hope to find the right "pusher" to get to the checkered flag first.

This will be our first race since teams loaded up at Homestead last November and crowned Tony Stewart the Sprint Cup champion for the third 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 box. Expect most of the teams that ended the 2011 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short offseason. The teams of Richard Childress Racing would be a good example of this point. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard put together consistent streaks as the season closed last November. Those four drivers combined for 12 Top-10 finishes over the final 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 Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2012.

Once again this season we'll continue to examine the loop statistics for each race, and make them the centerpiece of our weekly prognostications. Electronic scoring 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 14 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch17.61,918662751,82198.7
Tony Stewart14.11,235665241,61798.2
Kurt Busch13.91,927562231,69396.0
Jeff Gordon18.71,521521491,47989.4
Matt Kenseth15.21,60868601,49789.0
Jimmie Johnson20.61,68032331,61287.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 16.21,657641201,50187.1
Clint Bowyer15.11,365511491,11787.0
Landon Cassill26.0158109386.9
Kevin Harvick15.81,526671001,31686.3
Jeff Burton19.51,72254541,35083.8
Carl Edwards17.91,9185341,45083.2
Ryan Newman21.31,56052961,37182.9
Kasey Kahne14.91,69360271,29282.6
David Ragan15.21,212282484180.7
Jamie McMurray21.21,82341181,33380.2
Denny Hamlin22.11,1346012797180.1
Mark Martin20.51,25339771,21377.7
Martin Truex Jr.22.21,50553531,15477.3
Joey Logano22.868116139572.9

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, and a driver with the knack to perform well in the pack-racing that dominates the scene in the Daytona 500. As Daytona Pre-Season Thunder testing in January showed us, the Hendrick Motorsports stable will field fast cars for this race, 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 series. With three career victories on superspeedways, including two Daytona wins, the Richard Childress Racing veteran 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. 29 Chevrolet boasts some of the best stats of anyone in NASCAR the last few seasons at Daytona International Speedway.

Kurt Busch -
The 2011 Budweiser Shootout winner gets a fresh start in 2012. Busch moves to the No. 51 Chevrolet of Phoenix Racing and looks for a new beginning with a new team this season. What shouldn't change will be the former champion's expertise on restrictor-plate race tracks. Busch has never won a superspeedway race, but he's cracked the Top 5 an amazing 16 times in 44 starts between Daytona and Talladega. He led 19 laps and finished fifth in last year's Daytona 500 and that was one week after winning the Bud Shootout on the same race track. Busch should pick up right where he left off given this small team's good superspeedway resume, and Hendrick Motorsports technical support.

Tony Stewart -
As the loop stats show Stewart is a top performer when the Sprint Cup Series visits superspeedways. He has four career victories on these huge ovals, with three of them coming at Daytona. The 2011 Sprint Cup Series champion should be looking to make a big statement in the first race of the 2012 season. Smoke had a bit of a lackluster year on the restrictor-plate tracks last season, despite winning the championship. We expect new crew chief Steve Addington to be a boost in Stewart's superspeedway performance, and it could result in his fourth career Daytona win this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon's 12 career victories on the restrictor-plate race tracks leads all active drivers by a wide margin. Despite not having won on a superspeedway since 2007, we still view the Hendrick Motorsports star as one of the series' top performers when we visit Daytona International Speedway. The No. 24 team's performance on these big ovals took a turn to the positive in 2011, with Gordon winning one pole position and posting third- and sixth-place finishes at Talladega and Daytona during the summer. If there is a sneaky-good play among the elite drivers for the Daytona 500, Gordon is it. It would not be shocking at all to see him steal the show in this Great American Race.

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

Kasey Kahne -
As Kahne gets settled in at Hendrick Motorsports and his new No. 5 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 two Top 5's in his last three trips to Daytona. In fact, the last time we saw him racing at the Florida oval, he posted a brilliant fourth-place finish in the Coke Zero 400 last July. The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, including Kahne's, looked mighty fast in the recent Daytona testing in late January, so we expect Kahne to work closely with his teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to get a good finish in this 500-mile event.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is the 2009 Daytona 500 winner and a regular solid performer at this historic 2.5-mile superspeedway. The driver of the No. 17 Ford is one of the better performing Ford drivers when it comes to restrictor-plate racing, and the results are plain to see. Kenseth has cracked the Top 10 in five of his last seven trips to Daytona International Speedway. That includes his brilliant runner-up finish in last summer's Coke Zero 400, where he led 14 laps and raced with the leaders most of the evening at the famous Florida oval. The Roush Fenway Racing star should be on his A-game this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
He may be short on experience, but Keselowski has been long on results in his brief Sprint Cup Series career. This also holds true on the circuit's superspeedways. In 11 career starts at both Talladega and Daytona, the Penske Racing youngster has one victory and four Top 10's. Granted, most of his success has come at the Talladega oval and not the Daytona oval, it's clear that Keselowski grasps the principles of racing in the draft well. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge will be racing in his third Daytona 500 this Sunday afternoon and looking for a career-best effort. If Keselowski's fourth-place finish at Talladega during the Chase last fall is any indication, he should be fast in the Great American Race.

Clint Bowyer -
The former Richard Childress Racing driver has been one of the more consistent and dependable drivers on the restrictor-plate tracks the past few seasons. Bowyer has amassed two wins and 12 Top-10 finishes in 24-career starts on superspeedways. That 50 percent Top 10 rate on the huge ovals is pretty good by Sprint Cup Series standards. Bowyer has moved from RCR over to the new No. 15 Toyota team of Michael Waltrip Racing. While that is a bit of a concern regarding performance, it shouldn't do too much to diminish his value considering the nature of superspeedway racing.

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

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star enters the event as the fastest qualifier, so he will start the Great American Race on the pole. Granted, that doesn't normally mean too much in superspeedway racing, but it does help some. Edwards' restrictor-plate racing resume is rather spotty, with only 10 Top-10 finishes in 29 starts. However, it's his most recent body of work that bears close examination. Edwards finished runner-up in last season's Daytona 500, and that is one of four Top 10's in his last five trips to Daytona International Speedway. The driver of the No. 99 Ford should be in the mix after 500-miles of racing, assuming he can stay out of the carnage.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is attempting to build on the gains that he made in 2011 with his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 team. The NASCAR icon let another season pass without winning a race, but his consistency and level of performance did pick up under crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt has legendary superspeedway stats earlier in his career, and he will attempt to rediscover that magic this weekend in the Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet owns seven career restrictor-plate wins and 25 Top-10 finishes.

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 275 laps led in the last seven years at Daytona are second only to Tony Stewart. The finishes haven't followed though. This fact could be changing if last season is any indication. The Joe Gibbs Racing star posted fifth- and eighth-place finishes in both Daytona races in 2011. It was by far his career-best season of racing on the famous Florida superspeedway. Busch's big win in this past Saturday's Bud Shootout only bolsters this notion.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Roger Penske has a new driver in the No. 22 Dodge, and Allmendinger has his best opportunity yet to show what he can do in the Sprint Cup Series. The off-season move from the Petty Motorsports No. 43 team to the Penske No. 22 should be a big boost in value for Allmendinger. Even racing in the No. 43 Ford the five-year veteran was competitive on the restrictor-plate tracks. Allmendinger had finishes of 11th-, 11th-, 10th- and 31st-place in his four superspeedway starts in 2011. The No. 22 team that took Kurt Busch to victory lane in the Bud Shootout last season will be fueling Allmendinger's efforts this year. We expect the results to follow.

David Ragan -
The former Roush Fenway Racing driver begins a new chapter in his Sprint Cup Series career this weekend. Ragan takes over the No. 34 Ford of Front Row Motorsports and hopes to import the consistency and skill that he displayed in his last season with the No. 6 Ford team. Ragan won the July Daytona race last season for his first-ever Sprint Cup Series victory. That didn't happen by accident as he was also in the running to win last season's Daytona 500 before a late race restart violation knocked him out of contention. Ragan should give the FRM team that showed fast race cars on the plate tracks in '11, a good run in the Daytona 500.

David Gilliland -
Ragan's new teammate at Front Row Motorsports showed that his team's best ovals were the superspeedways last season. Gilliland collected two Top-10 finishes in the four superspeedway races last season, and finished a respectable 16th and 22nd in the ones he didn't crack the Top 10. The FRM team had fast cars on the restrictor-plate tracks in 2011 and we don't expect that to change this season. Gilliland is a good wild-card fantasy play for the Daytona 500 because he presents the upside of a surprise Top-10 finish.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver had a career-best season in 2011, including a win in the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Menard also forged a very respectable resume on the restrictor-plate tracks last season. He's never historically been a performer on the large ovals, but Menard managed finishes of ninth-, 12th-, eighth- and 12th-place in the four superspeedway races of last season. That's about as safe and dependable as it comes in this high stakes brand of racing. Menard and the No. 27 Chevy should be a reliable start in Sunday afternoon's Daytona 500.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Ryan Newman -
Despite his excellence and consistency the last couple seasons, Newman has found the skating uphill on the superspeedways. The driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet has no Top-20 finishes in his last eight restrictor-plate races, and two DNF's to his credit despite leading 74 laps combined in these starts. Newman just hasn't quite figured out the finishing part of these wild, superspeedway races. We expect this pattern to remain in intact in the Daytona 500. Newman didn't do anything to distinguish himself in this past Saturday night's Bud Shootout, other than to survive the carnage and finish on the lead lap.

Jimmie Johnson -
If you play in a weekly lineup league, with a starter cap, you may want to consider passing on Johnson this weekend. superspeedway racing has never really been his cup of tea. The Hendrick Motorsports star has only averaged a 20.4 finish position over the last eight restrictor-plate races, despite his shocking Talladega victory last spring. In five of those eight starts Johnson has failed to finish inside the Top 20 with two DNF's. Johnson and his stellar No. 48 team are much better deployed elsewhere in the schedule than Daytona.

Bobby Labonte -
Despite a surprising fourth-place finish in last season's Daytona 500, Labonte has found the going rather rough on the plate tracks in recent seasons. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver has six finishes outside the Top 20 in his last eight superspeedway starts, including two DNF's. Labonte was 42nd-fastest of 49 drivers attempting to qualify in Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying, so the No. 47 Toyota seems to be lacking some real speed needed to be competitive.

Jamie McMurray -
Despite the wins that came earlier in McMurray's career on the large ovals, we have to be very reserved on the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver's chances in this Daytona 500. Until the No. 1 team can prove they're out of the season-long funk they were mired in during 2011, McMurray should be considered a risky play. He did a lot to shake that notion in this past Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona. The No. 1 Chevrolet team led 11 laps and mixed up with the leaders, but McMurray ended up crashing out in the end and finished 16th. His one Top-20 finish in four superspeedway starts last season is fresh on our minds heading into the season's first race.
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