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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.

Welcome to another season of NASCAR racing, and to kick things off we head to the warmer, southern retreat of Daytona Beach 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 most prestigious event in the sport. 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 historic, 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 Sprint Unlimited, the new gen-6 race car has had a dramatic affect on superspeedway racing, and the old school, multi-car draft that once was the rule at tracks like Daytona and Talladega is back in effect. We'll see lots of three-wide, big pack racing in this season's Daytona 500. Once we get to the final 10 laps and crunch time, it will be interesting to see how the drivers cope with the new car. Pushing and bump drafting is pretty much out of the picture, so we'll see some precarious drafting and multiplying 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 frays nerves for 475 miles, then a 25-mile wild sprint to the finish which will have the top contenders climbing over one-another to get to the checkered flag first.

This will be our first race since the teams loaded up at Homestead last November, and crowned Brad Keselowski the Sprint Cup 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 2012 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short off-season and even into the new gen-6 race car. The teams of Michael Waltrip Racing would be a good example of this point. Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr, Brian Vickers and Mark Martin all put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November. Those four drivers combined for 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 Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2013.

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. These stats are pretty 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 16 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch18.02,300722812,08197.6
Tony Stewart13.41,583675481,82596.5
Matt Kenseth13.61,907711991,80992.5
Kurt Busch16.82,127592231,77689.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 15.32,142691201,79888.3
Jeff Gordon19.61,807541501,64888.1
Jeff Burton17.51,99363781,58285.5
Clint Bowyer15.81,614651491,25885.3
Kevin Harvick15.71,691801001,43084.7
Carl Edwards16.62,2015741,64184.7
Denny Hamlin21.01,409681841,22083.3
Ryan Newman20.31,72959961,52483.2
Kasey Kahne15.31,99768271,48983.0
Jimmie Johnson22.91,90532331,72082.8
Martin Truex Jr.21.21,89357621,43980.3
Jamie McMurray21.32,18248181,50480.2
Mark Martin19.81,51642791,36078.5
Joey Logano18.81,05623362678.5
Greg Biffle21.61,375651171,35077.7
David Ragan18.41,233312584874.0

In this race one year ago we had a first-ever Monday night running of the Daytona 500 thanks to two straight days of rain. We had an exhaustive 2-hour delay as Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a jet dryer under caution and set off a conflagration that almost consumed the track and everything on it. We had a future Sprint Cup champion, Brad Keselowski, Tweeting from inside his car during that caution period and causing NASCAR to rewrite the rule book regarding social media/wireless devices/inside race cars. How can we top all that in 2013? It will be a tough act to follow, but the debut of the Gen-6 race car promises to make things maybe almost as interesting as last year's epically strange and thrilling Daytona 500. As Daytona Pre-Season Thunder testing in January showed us, the Roush Fenway Racing 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

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth is the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500 winner and a regular solid performer at this historic 2.5-mile superspeedway. The new Joe Gibbs Racing driver hopes to import that excellence from Ford to Toyota this season. Based on the testing we saw in January, that will likely happen. Kenseth has cracked the Top 3 in his last three trips to Daytona International Speedway, and he's led over 150 laps during this span. That includes his brilliant third-place finish in last summer's Coke Zero 400, where he led 89 laps and raced with the leaders most of the evening at the famous Florida oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star should be on his A-game this Sunday afternoon.

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 281 laps led in the last eight years at Daytona are second only to Tony Stewart. The finishes haven't typically followed though. This fact could be changing if last season is any indication. Busch won last year's Budweiser Shootout at the Florida oval and proved that he could hold off a hard-charging pack in a shootout to the finish. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has never won the Great American Race, but he did win the summer race at Daytona in 2008. It's only a matter of time before this great driver wins the Daytona 500, and all indicators point to this season being his best opportunity in a long time.

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. Smoke should be looking to make a big statement in the first race of the 2013 season. He had a bit of a lackluster year in defense of his 2011 championship, and will be eager to prove himself right away. The last time the series visited Daytona International Speedway, Stewart came from 42nd starting spot on the grid to win the Coke Zero 400 for his fourth career win at the historic oval. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is still looking for his first career Daytona 500 win, so there's no better time than now to cash in.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt is attempting to build on the gains that he made in 2012 with his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 team. The NASCAR icon made consistency his cornerstone last season, and he even got back to victory lane one time in 2012. Now Earnhardt will attempt to reestablish his dominance on these enormous ovals. He 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, two in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt finished runner-up in the Great American Race one year ago, and don't believe for a second that hasn't irked him. He will try to make amends this Sunday afternoon.

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

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star brings a good recent history on the big ovals into this weekend's Daytona 500. Edwards' restrictor-plate racing resume is rather spotty, with only 12 Top-10 finishes in 33 starts. However, it's his most recent body of work that bears close examination. Edwards finished eighth in last season's Daytona 500 after winning the pole, and that is one of six Top 10s in his last seven trips to Daytona International Speedway. The driver of the No. 99 Ford should keep this streak of consistency alive in this Sunday's Great American Race.

Joey Logano -
The new face in the Penske Racing camp is Logano. Over the off-season he became driver of the No. 22 Ford and teammate to reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. We expect the fallout from this move to be positive. If there was a driver in the series screaming for a fresh start it was Logano. All that aside, his recent superspeedway racing heading into this weekend has been superb. Logano has four Top 10s in his last seven restrictor-plate events. That includes three straight Daytona Top 10s. The young driver showed a very fast car in last weekend's Sprint Unlimited, so we're certain he'll be among the leaders in the season-opener at DIS.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick is one of the most successful restrictor-plate racing drivers currently 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. Including this past weekend's Sprint Unlimited victory, he has three wins in that Daytona exhibition event to boot. The driver of the No. 29 Chevrolet boasts some of the best performance stats of anyone in NASCAR the last few seasons at Daytona International Speedway.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star will get to build on his Daytona resume this weekend. Kahne has two Top 5s and three Top 10s in his last five trips to Daytona International Speedway. In fact, the last time we saw him racing at the Florida oval, he posted a brilliant seventh-place finish in the Coke Zero 400 last July. The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, including Kahne's, looked very 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.

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

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has shown the type of speed at Daytona the last couple seasons that will make him a good sleeper to win this Sunday afternoon. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has led 79 laps in his last two Daytona appearances, and he even finished a brilliant third in last year's Daytona 500 after pushing his teammate Matt Kenseth to the win. Biffle had a very fast car in this past weekend's Sprint Unlimited. He led two laps and was among the leaders all night at DIS before finishing runner-up in that exhibition. The No. 16 Ford team should have a strong outing in the Great American Race.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver has built a good Daytona resume in his brief career at RCR. Since moving from Richard Petty Motorsports to his current No. 27 team, Menard has made four starts at Daytona International Speedway. He's finished ninth-, eighth, sixth- and 14th-place in those events for one of the most consistent records at DIS in the series the last two seasons. Considering the luck and skill required to finish this well at Daytona, this didn't happen by accident. Menard and the No. 27 Chevy should be a reliable start in Sunday afternoon's Daytona 500.

Jeff Burton -
Despite Burton's fall from excellence over the last couple seasons, one thing has remained rock steady, his superspeedway racing consistency. The RCR veteran has three Top 5s and five Top 10s in his last five starts on the big ovals of Daytona and Talladega. That's a streak unrivaled by any other driver in the series. Burton's last two trips to this famous Florida oval have netted runner-up and fifth-place finishes. The evidence shows that the driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet clearly knows something about superspeedway racing that the rest of the field is missing.

Kurt Busch -
The 2011 Budweiser Shootout winner gets a fresh start in 2013. Busch moves to the No. 78 Chevrolet of Furniture Row 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 48 starts between Daytona and Talladega. He has four Top-10 finishes in his last eight Daytona races. Busch should have no trouble rediscovering his superspeedway excellence given this small team's good restrictor-plate resume, and Richard Childress Racing technical support.

Danica Patrick -
The Rookie of the Year campaign has started off pretty well for Patrick. By capturing the pole position for this weekend's Daytona 500, she's already made history and the green flag hasn't even waved yet. The driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet has shown a very strong stock car in the January tests at Daytona and in the practices to this point in Speedweeks. She has the speed to easily be a Top-10 finisher in the Daytona 500. Now all Patrick needs to do is bring that finish home with a solid 200-lap performance. Sure, there's some calculated risk with this Stewart Haas Racing driver, but there's also a tremendous amount of upside given the speed that she's displayed at Daytona.

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports driver is an excellent restrictor-plate performer. Ragan won the July, 2011 Daytona race for his first-ever Sprint Cup Series victory. That didn't happen by accident as he has displayed good skill on these big ovals. Ragan sports nine Top-10 finishes in 24 career starts on superspeedways. That averages out to a respectable 17.2 average finish in Daytona and Talladega starts. Ragan should give the FRM team that showed fast race cars on the plate tracks in 2011 and 2012, a good run in the Daytona 500.

David Gilliland -
Ragan's teammate at Front Row Motorsports showed that he's a gifted superspeedway performer as well. Gilliland owns two career poles and nine Top-15 finishes on these superspeedway tracks. The FRM team had fast cars on the restrictor-plate tracks in 2011 and we don't expect that to change this season. Gilliland had two Top 15s in his last three restrictor-plate races of last season, so he rides some momentum into this Great American Race. The driver of the No. 38 Ford is a good wild-card fantasy play for the Daytona 500 because he presents the upside of a likely Top-15 finish.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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, 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 eight trips to Daytona have only yielded two Top-10 finishes vs. four finishes outside the Top 25. He has only one Top 10 in his last five restrictor-plate events. Given that Gordon is on the outside pole for this Sunday's Daytona 500 its difficult to pass him up, but his lack of luck on these superspeedways is something to not overlook.

Brad Keselowski -
Among drivers with a minimum of seven Daytona starts, Keselowski's stats are among the worst in the series. The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has had a real tough go at the 2.5-mile Florida oval. Keselowski has only one Top-10 finish vs. three DNF's in his last seven starts at DIS. That works out to a lowly 24.9 average finish. While we think the Penske Racing star will have a very successful 2013 campaign, it may be best to lay off on him in the season-opener at Daytona.

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 28.0 finish position over the last eight Daytona races, with four DNF's to his credit. You might recall that in last season's Daytona 500, the five-time champion was caught up in someone's else's mistake and was heavily damaged in a lap 3, multi-car accident. Johnson will have a fast race car but his skill and luck in superspeedway racing is questionable at best.

Regan Smith -
Despite driving for his new No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, Smith may find it difficult out-running his recent poor performances at Daytona International Speedway. The former Furniture Row Racing driver has only one Top 10 in his last eight appearances at the famous Florida speedway. Smith has finished outside the Top 20 in six of those starts. The No. 51 Chevrolet team found the going pretty difficult on the restrictor-plate tracks last season, so that makes for a bad combination with a new driver and team currently struggling on superspeedways.
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