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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.

We're set to kick off another season of NASCAR racing, and to get things started we head to 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 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 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, some of the changes NASCAR made during the offseason to the Gen-6 race car have had a dramatic impact on superspeedway racing, and the old-school, multi-car draft that once was the rule at tracks like Daytona and Talladega is now back in effect. We should see a lot 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 superspeedway rules package. Pushing and bump drafting are now 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 frays 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 is the first race since teams loaded up at Homestead last November and crowned Jimmie Johnson the Sprint Cup Series champion for the sixth 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. Expect most of the teams that ended the 2013 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short offseason, right into the Daytona 500. The teams of Joe Gibbs Racing are a good example of this point. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin put together consistent streaks as the season closed last November. Those three drivers combined for 12 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, teams that struggled through the Chase for the Cup last fall have a lot to prove during Speedweeks. Drivers like Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle and Aric Almirola had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2014.

Before we dive into the driver picks, let's take a minute to look at loop statistics for Daytona International Speedway. 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 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. Below are the loop stats for the last 18 races at Daytona International Speedway.

Kyle Busch18.62,569783102,30796.9
Tony Stewart14.31,675735481,89293.0
Matt Kenseth15.92,215762862,08292.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14.12,495831202,06989.7
Kurt Busch16.82,385642231,94788.8
Jimmie Johnson20.52,185391442,06288.4
Jeff Gordon20.42,039571811,87387.2
Clint Bowyer14.81,841761501,48986.2
Denny Hamlin21.51,597772371,44983.7
Jeff Burton18.12,07169791,69283.1
Kasey Kahne17.42,16769271,66782.4
Kevin Harvick16.41,768851001,52882.3
Carl Edwards18.22,3556941,69581.8
Ryan Newman18.81,78364991,56281.8
Mark Martin18.81,64748791,51079.6
Jamie McMurray21.12,38648281,63679.3
Greg Biffle20.41,651751171,61979.1
Martin Truex Jr.22.52,12361621,64779.1
Joey Logano20.91,30228580879.0
Brian Vickers19.31,188483483077.7

Last year's Daytona 500 was the first ever in the new Gen-6 car. Many drivers weren't sure how to handle this, so we saw a pretty cautious Great American Race. However, the final 15 laps saw a classic battle between Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the lead. Johnson held on after a late restart and kept Dale Earnhardt Jr. at bay to capture his second Daytona 500 crown. It was a thrilling end to the biggest race of the season. Can we top that in 2014? Given the new superspeedway rule changes, we believe they will. Pack racing should be back, and single-file riding should be at a minimum. As Daytona Pre-Season Thunder testing in January showed, teams of the various Chevrolet camps 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. In recent history, that luck hasn't been with the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing despite the fact they've had excellent speed in this race. Maybe this year is the Daytona 500 victory that doesn't get away from team owner Joe Gibbs. As the above statistics show, we have a handful of drivers from many stables who 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 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 Joe Gibbs Racing star hopes to grab that third Daytona 500 trophy driving the No. 20 Toyota. He led 86 laps in the Great American Race last season before an unfortunate engine failure parked his dominant machine for the day. Kenseth has cracked the Top 3 in three of his last five trips to Daytona International Speedway, and he's led 240 laps during this span. The veteran was easily the most dominant driver in the series on superspeedways last season, yet he lacked the wins to underscore it. Maybe Kenseth's luck turns to the positive in this huge race.

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 new Stewart Haas 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. 4 Chevrolet boasts some of the best performance stats of anyone in NASCAR the last few seasons at Daytona International Speedway. Expect to see Harvick battling it out with the leaders for the full 500 miles Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson -
The defending Sprint Cup Series champion owned Daytona last year. Johnson swept both Daytona races and in convincing fashion. He led 17 laps late in last season's Daytona 500 and held on to win his second Daytona 500 crown. The Hendrick Motorsports star returned to Daytona in summer and dominated the Coke Zero 400. Johnson led 94 of the 161 laps and broke out the brooms at Daytona International Speedway. Last season was easily his most successful on the superspeedways of the Sprint Cup Series. Expect Johnson to carry that excellence and performance into the new season. He could easily pick up his third Daytona 500 trophy after 200 wild and wooly laps at the famous oval.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Junior nation has been waiting with great anticipation for the popular driver to return to victory lane at Daytona. Maybe this year will be the year that he pulls the trick and erases a nine-year dry spell at the 2.5-mile oval. Earnhardt has shown signs of making the return trip to victory lane at DIS in recent seasons. Two of his last four trips to Daytona International Speedway netted runner-up finishes, and both were Daytona 500 events. In last year's race, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet waited just a bit too late to make his move and pass attempt on teammate Jimmie Johnson, pulling up just short of the win. Earnhardt should be present at the front with the leaders once again this Sunday afternoon.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star will kick off his rebound season with a big performance in the Daytona 500. Keselowski had a disappointing 2013 season and missed the Chase. He'll make up for it this season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford led 13 laps late in last season's Daytona 500 and finished an impressive fourth. That was one of two Top-10s in his last three trips to Daytona Beach. Keselowski has two career wins at the Talladega oval, so he clearly knows something about racing in the draft. Expect another strong Daytona performance like the ones we've grown accustomed to seeing from this driver the last couple seasons.

Joey Logano -
Coming off a career-best season, Logano has to be pumped about the start of the new season. He recorded career highs with 11 Top-5s and 19 Top-10s and made his first Chase for the Cup field. All that aside, his recent superspeedway racing has been a bit hit-or-miss, though the Daytona numbers have remained strong. Logano has two Top-10 finishes in his last four starts at Daytona International Speedway. 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.

Denny Hamlin -
Last Saturday night's dramatic victory in the Sprint Unlimited was a big surprise for most of NASCAR nation. It was Hamlin's second career win in that exhibition race, but maybe a precursor of things to come this Sunday afternoon or even for the rest of this season. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has never gotten the Daytona finishes he deserves, which is mainly the reason for his "Solid Play" instead of "Contender" ranking, but he always brings fast cars to Daytona. Hamlin's 237 laps led ranks forth among active drivers in the last nine years of racing at the historic Florida oval. Not only could he get the finish he deserves this weekend, he could have the greatest upside of any driver in the field.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is one of the most consistent superspeedway drivers of the last few years. Bowyer sports a 44-percent career Top-10 rate at Daytona International Speedway. That includes fourth- and 11th-place finishes in his last two trips to DIS. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota racked up a pair of Top-10s in his last two superspeedway races of 2013, so Bowyer is carrying momentum on these style ovals into the new season. The veteran driver owns two career Talladega victories, making it clear he knows how to race in the draft.

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

Ryan Newman -
The new Richard Childress Racing driver is the 2008 Daytona 500 winner and a strong performer at the historic Florida oval. Newman doesn't have the best career numbers at DIS, but his last three trips to Daytona Beach netted a pair of Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes. Those numbers dovetail nicely with his superspeedway performance in general. Five of his last six starts on restrictor-plate race tracks netted Top-10 finishes. Newman should kick off his new relationship with the No. 31 Chevrolet team in good fashion.

Austin Dillon -
This is not the first career start at Daytona for the pole-winning rookie. Dillon raced in last year's Great American Race and finished an unimpressive 31st after being caught in a mid-race wreck and receiving car damage. With the return of the No. 3 Chevrolet to action in NASCAR's top division comes a lot of pressure, but Dillon can handle it. The young driver has three career Top-5 finishes in four Nationwide Series starts at Daytona International Speedway, so clearly he has the superspeedway racing gift. Richard Childress Racing has prided itself on its restrictor-plate racing program for years, so Dillon has home-run potential in this race.

Kurt Busch -
The 2011 Budweiser Shootout winner gets another change of scenery in 2014. Busch moves to the No. 41 Chevrolet of Stewart Haas Racing and looks to continue his great performance with this new strong team. 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 10 an amazing 26 times in 52 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 at Stewart Haas Racing.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Truex has only one career Top-10 finish in 17 starts at Daytona. That works out to a lowly 22.5 average finish. So why the sleepers ranking? Easy, the change of scenery and parting ways with Michael Waltrip Racing will give Truex the fresh start he needs to succeed. Not only that, but his new team at Furniture Row Racing is basically a satellite team for Richard Childress Racing. As Truex showed us during Sunday's pole-qualifying, the No. 78 Chevrolet is wicked fast. The veteran driver has what it takes to pick up his second career Daytona Top 10 this Sunday afternoon, but we're a bit unsold yet on how the balance of his Cup season will go. Feel confident to roll him out this week, though.

Jamie McMurray -
With four career victories between Daytona and Talladega, McMurray has proven his superspeedway racing expertise. His last visit to victory lane came last fall at Talladega in a strong performance. The No. 1 team of Ganassi Racing is on the rise, and McMurray should put in a solid outing in the Great American Race. Last summer, his last visit to Daytona, McMurray led 10 laps and registered an impressive seventh-place finish in the Coke Zero 400. That's the driver and team we should see Sunday afternoon at Daytona.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
One thing is clear to this point in Stenhouse Jr.'s young career - he has draft-racing down pat. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has both good luck and skill on his side at the series' two restrictor-plate race tracks. In five combined starts between Daytona and Talladega, Stenhouse has one Top-5 and four Top-15 finishes. His Daytona average finish is a respectable 14.3 over three events. While the numbers aren't eye-popping, they are steady, and the zero DNF's are reassuring as well. That shows Stenhouse knows how to avoid accidents, and he should bring the car home on the lead lap Sunday afternoon. Given that he's been reunited with the crew chief who led him to two Nationwide Series championships, he has a lot of upside.

Michael Waltrip -
Waltrip is the mandatory deep-league fantasy racing play this weekend. He has four career victories and 31 Top-10 finishes on superspeedways. The owner/driver of the No. 66 Toyota has mostly raced part time the last few seasons, but it hasn't affected his level of performance on these ovals one bit. Waltrip has four Top-10s in his last eight races at Daytona and Talladega. The 50-percent Top-10 rate is well higher than his career average and great in the Sprint Cup Series by any measure. Waltrip's 100 starts of experience on the restrictor-plate tracks are more than anyone in the field this year.

Slow Down - Drivers to possibly 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 hasn't won at Daytona since 2005, so we have to put all that success in proper context. The No. 24 team's performance on these big ovals has been less than impressive in recent years. Gordon's last four trips to Daytona yielded only one Top-15 finish vs. two DNF's. With only one Top-10 in his last nine restrictor-plate events, Gordon doesn't make the best fantasy racing play on opening weekend.

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 coming at Daytona. However, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is coming off a six-month layoff due to a broken leg sustained last summer. In late January he said his leg was going to be about 65 percent healthy when he climbs in the car during Speedweeks. We really didn't get a gage on this during the Sprint Unlimited because it's such a short race, and he took an early exit thanks to the huge multi-car crash. However, the rigors of 200 laps on Sunday likely will take Stewart down a few notches and off his usual excellent game on these style ovals.

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 35-percent Top-10 rate at Daytona and an even lower 20-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 four 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; Tony Stewart is a prime example of this at Daytona as well.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has unloaded some of the fastest cars at restrictor-plate tracks of anyone in the series the last few seasons. That fact is undeniable. Busch's 310 laps led in the last nine 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 "Flops" list for Daytona 500 weekend. He hasn't visited the Top 5 at DIS in his last four trips, and his career 33-percent Top-10 rate at the huge oval is less than reassuring. Busch could be a high-reward driver, but he's also a high-risk driver at Daytona International Speedway.