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It’s hard to believe NASCAR racing is already back, but come Saturday night, the 2011 season unofficially begins with the Budweiser Shootout, a 75 lap non-points race consisting of a select group of drivers.

While betting on the race is a must just because racing is back, it should be used more as a tool to analyze how the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 will run the following week.

Even though not much has changed with the top restrictor-plate teams in the Sprint Cup series, a lot has changed with Daytona’s track itself as repaving began after last season’s Firecracker 400 during the summer.

The track is said to be much smoother and quicker, which in turn called for a new tire compound from Goodyear. Those factors will surely play some kind of role in determining who stays on top of their plate game.

Kevin Harvick won two plate races last season and has won the last two Budweiser Shootouts, but how will his performance be altered due to the resurfacing? Jamie McMurray has won three of his six career wins in plate races, including last year’s Daytona 500; how will the change affect him?

It’s tough to know how the new surface is going to affect everyone because we’ve seen only practice sessions run without anyone really letting it all hang out in actual race conditions. This Saturday night, even though it’s essentially an exhibition race, the short list of drivers will be letting loose for the first time with the winner taking home over $200,000 in prize money.

Until we see Saturday’s race and how it affects drafting and passing like we’ve seen in recent years, let’s just assume the usual suspects will be the ones to key on this week.

The drivers who are eligible to race this week include all 12 who made last year’s Chase, past Bud Shootout winners, past Cup Champions, rookie of the year winners from 2001-2010 and former Daytona winners of each of their races the last two seasons. It’s basically anybody who is somebody is eligible and participating this week.

Along with Harvick and McMurray as top candidates to win Saturday, we also have to take a good look at Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya due to their great preseason testing times last month. Along the same lines, Joey Logano should get some pretty good odds as a long shot for the race.

A small sampling of odds to win are the only way to go for this race unless value is found on matchup prices at plus money of at least +140 or more. It’s not a wise move to invest much in matchups during a regular season plate race, let alone a preseason race.

Enjoy the first real action of the season and be sure to keep some mental notes of littlest of things that could be a factor for the Daytona 500.

Just a note: While the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book is always the best weekly value in NASCAR odds. Due to the low theorectical hold, the MGM Resort properties have a ton of value with several drivers for the Daytona 500.

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