Unlimited thirst to start Sprint Cup at the Daytona 500

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We only have two more weekends to patiently wait before the green flag officially drops for the Daytona 500.

For all those thirsty high octane fans who have the need for speed, there is a little appetizer on Saturday night as the Sprint Unlimited will be run at Daytona. It is a 75-lap non-points race with only 20 drivers participating who either won a pole during the 2013 season or won a previous Sprint Unlimited, formerly known as the Bud Shootout.

To win a pole, the driver has to be pretty good, and most of the 20 drivers participating are the biggest names in the sport such as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. This leaves out a lot of the riff-raff, such as lower funded teams or younger inexperienced drivers, and allows the big boys to go head to head in a short Saturday Night Special type of format.

On Friday night, we’ll have our first chance to see these cars in action during two practice sessions. While those sessions may provide some insight to who might be fast during the race, this event has usually been about who can make that winning move within the last two laps.

It’s amazing that a few drivers continually seem to find themselves in those situations no matter the changes in car design or team structure – a great sign that the driver still matters perhaps more than the car itself in restrictor-plate races.

Take Kevin Harvick for example. Here’s a driver who has switched teams, moving from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing, but he’s won three of the past five Sprint Unlimited events. That’s two differing type of cars – the COT and Gen-6, and yet he seems to see the air better than most down the stretch when it counts, and find that little edge to help propel him through the draft and cross the finish line first.

Harvick’s car will look similar to the past few seasons because he brought the Budweiser sponsorship with him, and he’ll again be driving a Chevy, but it may take some time to get used to the No. 4 painted on his car.

For 13 years he drove the No. 29 for RCR, and he had a huge following right out of the gate just because he took over the famed No. 3 team following the passing of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001. It’s debatable how well his entire season will go in 2014, but when the plates are on, not many – if any – are better than Harvick.

The same goes for his new boss, Tony Stewart, who missed the final 13 races last season due to breaking his leg after crashing during a race, a non-NASCAR event. Stewart won only one race last season and was pitiful in the first half of the season, but turned things around just before getting injured.

Will the surge continue into 2014 or will some of the same issues that plagued him early on continue? We’ll have to wait and see, but the one thing that should be certain is Stewart is eager to get back to racing and, more importantly, tasting success at Daytona’s appetizer, the Sprint Unlimited.

Stewart has won the non-points race to kick off a season three times (2001, 2002, 2007) and if we rank two-time Daytona 500 winner Harvick as the best plate racer, Stewart might come in at No. 2. He has yet to win a Daytona 500 himself, but does have four other wins on the 2.5-mile high-banked track during the summer.

Of all the drivers participating in this event, Stewart may present the best value at the LVH Super Book with 12-to-1 odds.

Another driver who should be considered Saturday night is Jamie McMurray at 15-to-1 odds. He has two wins at Daytona and two others at Talladega, the only other restrictor-plate track.

McMurray has a knack for feeling when it is the appropriate time to jump out of the draft and make a winning pass, as well as how to prevent other drivers from making the pass on him while leading.

Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t tasted a restrictor-plate victory too often in the past nine seasons, let alone any track, but he’s still a driver to be respected greatly, which is why he is considered one of the favorites to win Saturday, right up there with Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch at 7-to-1 odds.

While he hasn’t won a plate points race since 2004 at Daytona, his 12.9 average finish in the past 20 Daytona races – spring and summer – is the best among all drivers. Junior also has two Sprint Unlimited wins (2003, 2008).

I’m going to side with Stewart to win in a race he should be pumped up to be in, and of course, the odds make him very attractive as well.

The best long shot of the bunch is Ryan Newman at 20-to-1, only because the top-3 speeds during a Jan. 10 test session at Daytona all came from the RCR stables. Newman, the 2008 Daytona winner, is driving the No. 31 RCR Chevy this season, and is the only RCR driver participating.

Daytona 500 odds: While I have been critical of a few books’ offerings, I think it’s also appropriate to apologize for painting an unfair picture of a property.

I had been so infuriated with Harrah’s numbers, which chopped the odds of 15 drivers considerably lower from what they opened with while raising only two drivers’ odds, that I failed to recognize their current odds were still considerably better than several local chains of sports books.

While Harrah’s looks bad for their chopping methods, they still only have one driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., at odds (7/1) less than double-digits. Now the next hurdle at Harrah’s is getting a wager accepted where the risk is more than $500.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].

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