500 miles of driver changes!

Jan 31, 2006 2:10 AM

The NASCAR season is upon us with major changes. Here’s a quick update.

Rusty Wallace retired, kind of, while Mark Martin decided to go one more year with Roush Racing. Kurt Busch signed with Penske and will drive the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Taking over for Busch at Roush will be Jamie McMurray. Roush had such a sour taste for Busch after last season that he switched the car number to 26, retiring 97.

Succeeding McMurray with Ganassi Racing is Casey Mears. Reed Sorenson comes up from the Busch series to take Mears’ old ride. Ganassi also said goodbye to Sterling Marlin and hello to David Stremme. Marlin becomes to new driver for the No. 14 MB Motorsports Chevy. Scott Riggs now has the third car for Ray Evernham’s Dodge team. Bill Elliott now rides a Chevy for MB2 Motorsports.

Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte now drives for Petty and Busch series driver J.J. Yeley becomes Gibbs new No. 18 pilot. Michael Waltrip is gone from DEI, driving for Bill Davis with NAPA as his sponsor. It will just be painted 55 on a Dodge. DEI now has Busch Series Champion Martin Truex Jr, who should have no problem following orders and Junior in the draft. Kenny Schrader will have one of his more competitive rides in some time, driving for much improved Wood Brothers No. 21.

We also welcome Hall of Fame racing into the Cup series with former Dallas Cowboys QB’s Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman financing the venture. Two time Cup champ and Texas native Terry Labonte will drive at Daytona, the following four races and both road courses. Tony Raines fills in for the remaining schedule.

Regarding Daytona 500 props and odds, look for wagering on Chevrolets. Anything that can found at less than -300 presents great value. They are clearly the most dominant drivers. Between recent 500 history, restrictor plate races and Daytona test session from a few weeks ago, there really no reason to indicate a Ford or Dodge will win this year.

Obviously, it would serve well to find steals on Jeff Gordon (6-1), Dale Earnhardt Jr (6-1), and Tony Stewart (7-1), but that’s not likely to happen. Drivers with value have flown under the radar. Too many changes, plus a poor line. Case in point is Marlin, whose odds have been seen at 100-1. Driver bios show him in the No. 14 car, which has been garbage with the likes of Larry Foyt driving in the past.

This is NOT that same team, but the old No. 10 Scott Riggs drove last season to a fourth place finish in the Daytona 500. The motor is a Hendrick engine and he managed to propel the Chevy sixth fastest in the non-draft Daytona test session and seventh in drafting. Marlin has won two Daytona 500’s and also almost a third. He’s knows a little something about how the air works at Daytona, just not so much about the rules.

At 100-1, Marlin can help cover a lot of ground with wagering strategies. It only takes $10 to make $1,000 and he can offset the chance that one of the big guys doesn’t win at short odds. Riggs was 100-1 last year and it was very exciting to have a ticket on him knowing he had a chance to win with five laps to go. His true odds should be somewhere in the 30-1 range.

Joe Nemechek is like Marlin because of the Hendrick engine powering his No. 01 Army Chevrolet. Nemechek’s teammate for this race will be Elliott, who will look funny (odd) riding that Chevy. Elliott was third fastest in Daytona testing and has a wealth of track knowledge. You may find Elliott on "Field" wagers at around 25-1, while Nemechek is at 60-1.

Kyle Busch was second fastest in Daytona testing and shouldn’t sneak up on anyone. He’s driving for Hendrick Motorsports in one of those Golden engines, but can be found in the 20-1 range. He has a real legitimate shot of winning not only Daytona, but the Cup title. Kyle broke through in a big way last season and, because of his organization, it’s easier to believe he’ll evolve like Jimmie Johnson. No sophomore slump here.

All the big names will be at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the early part of this week testing for their cookie cutter racetrack set-ups. It’s a can’t-miss-event for the under-nurtured NASCAR fan and free to the public.

Team Owner Rick Hendrick is offering a $1.2 million bonus for his four drivers to split if all make the championship chase. Last year Roush placed all five cars in the Chase — except the "Cat in the Hat" didn’t hand out bonuses as generously, if at all. Safe to say Kurt Busch didn’t get one. Rumor is Jack is cheap and believes any of his Gong Show drivers can win with a little tutoring.

Toyota Camry make its debuts into the Cup series in 2007. In five years, I’m betting Camry rolls strong in many NASCAR consumers parking lot. Tony Stewart visited the White House for the third time, a rewards for winning the Cup. President Bush has been a long time supporter of NASCAR for both the vote and a genuine fondness of the sport. Car owner Joe Gibbs may have just passed Marilyn Monroe on the unofficial White House visit log with three Super Bowl wins and another three NASCAR Cup titles.