NASCAR’s back!

Feb 14, 2006 4:26 AM

So here’s the deal: you want to bet the Daytona 500, you want to get to the point, and you want the winner.

I’ve got three syllables for you: Chev-ro-let.

Okay, so that’s a really bad Dennis Leary impression. Nevertheless, it is pretty much the story this week. How can you look anywhere else but a Chevy dealership to find a winner for the 2006 Daytona 500?

The only way you could possibly make a case for a Ford wager is if there is a huge overlay on the top candidates, and to make a case for Dodge, well, that will take much more time with a lot of bad excuses.

In the last 10 Daytona races, including both the 500 and midseason firecracker, the scorecard read Chevrolet 8, Ford and Dodge 1 apiece.

If we go to Talladega, the only other restrictor plate track, and review the last 14 races, the scorecard reads Chevrolet 13, Ford 1.

Then, of course, you factor everything else in leading up to this race such as the Fords being inferior in testing, practice, and that this is the first year of the Ford Fusion.

Throw in the fact that all the teams dislike the new Dodge Charger so much that they are bringing back the Intrepid to a few races, despite the factory saying they don’t care for it.

Well, I’m looking at the facts and it doesn’t look so good for the guys without bow-ties.

Rather than being completely negative regarding everything not Chevy, let’s try to be somewhat positive and attempt to make a case for a few Ford guys.

The first group you must start with is Robert Yates led by Elliott Sadler and Dale Jarrett. Sadler has been one of the strongest overall in testing and practice, Jarrett has quite a few things going his favor, most notably, three 500 wins.

Jarrett won the last restrictor plate race. Remember the 13-1 Talladega stat. Well, the Ford that won was Jarrett’s. The momentum may be starting to shift Ford’s way. All the money and effort Yates has put into his plate program might just to come to fruition.

Yates is in the NASCAR game specifically to win the Daytona 500. This is the one event all the sponsors want to win. This is the race that that pays the bills. From all the testing he’s done over the last two years, the bills are pretty large.

Of the two, you have to go with Jarrett due to experience. Sadler might have the better equipment, but I still can’t think of any other moment for Sadler in a plate race other than him flipping a dozen times. My second memory of him in a plate race is flipping only six times!

Roush Racing has quite a few drivers, who have benefited from all Yates restrictor plate testing. Jack Roush has just about done it all in his career as an owner except win the Daytona 500. It seems bizarre that a guy who has almost one-eighth of the field under his command for the last few decades can’t get the big win. He finally won a title with Matt Kenseth and then followed it with Kurt Busch.

Roush is smart. The reality is restrictor plate racing comprises only four races. Why put all your marbles into one basket? Winning championships is about doing well on the cookie cutter tracks.

Roush eventually will want to win Daytona and he will press some day. However, I think he is quite happy to win championships and being king of down-force tracks.

If there were one team to look at from the Roush camp, it’s Kurt Busch’s old squad led by crew chief Jimmy Fennig and driven by Jamie McMurray.

Busch had always been strong at Daytona and Talladega and had the best setup car in the Roush stable next to Fennig’s. Busch was second in last year’s Daytona 500. McMurray also happened to finish second in last year’s mid-season Firecracker 400. J-Macs odds will be in the 20-1 range. That presents pretty good value.

Finding a leader to key on from the Dodges is a deep search, but it just might be Bobby Labonte or Scott Riggs. Both are longshots, but have huge upsides. You can bet on them and if they win, your pockets will be lined with odds of 85-1 or higher.

Riggs finished fourth in the Daytona 500 last season. He had the best times from Evernham’s camp, which is easily the most backed Dodge team in NASCAR.

Labonte has a whole staff that’s prepping cars at Petty Enterprises and it appears the team is very confident for the first time in two decades. There is a buzz going around in North Carolina among teams in the garages and the word is Petty might finally be back as a player in NASCAR.

No more cutting edges, saving a buck here, or going 75 percent. They want to be winners. Looks like Dodge is doing all it can to help, based on all data Evernham has accumulated.

Having discussed a few Fords and Dodges as appetizers, let’s get to the spicy meatball. There are a ton of candidates to win this week and they all drive Chevrolets.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr (5-1): This car is pretty sleek in the draft and is designed to Junior’s specifications. It’s slow by itself, but when other cars get around it, he goes pretty good. Look for Junior to be near the front all day. Don’t be shocked to see teammate Martin Truex right next to him.

The Hendrick team has three strong candidates led by six-time Daytona winner and defending 500 champ Jeff Gordon (9-2). Jimmie Johnson (8-1) and Kyle Busch (15-1) will be right along Jeffy’s side at the end of the race and in perfect position to take the checker as well.

Those three drivers will pose as a very intimidating wall against all others down the stretch. It’s hard to conceive anyone busting the blockade — they are that good.

Gordon has all the past success, but Johnson seems like the driver most ready to bust out into the spotlight.

We’re talking about a guy who Madison Avenue can’t wait for, a drivere just on the TV show Las Vegas. If that’s not a sign; well, it is a stretch. Still, Johnson is a star waiting to burst.

Kyle Busch has the misfortune of already being judged by the NASCAR Nation because of his brother. We love him, as well as Kurt, in Las Vegas. Preseason testing says Kyle is the one this week, however, his Busch and Cup restrictor plate races last year were awful.

I always wondered how Kurt Busch did so well in plates races with no experience. It was just a natural gift I suppose. Maybe the restrictor plate gene pool instinct skipped Kyle.

Anyway, he has the tools to be great. The learning experience, however, may take a while longer. Regardless, his car is very fast!

Richard Childress has not been the factor he once was in plate races. Perhaps that has to do with Dale Earnhardt not being there in addition to all the knuckleheads he has driving for him.

Kevin Harvick/Robby Gordon. While they didn’t pile up many wins, both did have success for him, Throw Jeff Burton in the mix with rookie Clint Bowyer and now Childress has two character guys who can be charismatic without punching someone. Burton won at Daytona in July 2000 and could be set up perfectly for resurrecting his career.

Chevrolet longshots: Sterling Marlin at 80-1 is a great choice and Bill Elliott at 40-1 will make it interesting down the stretch. I see both along with Joe Nemechek to be in the front pack for much of the race.

That is basically all you ask for when wagering on the Daytona 500 — who will be around late in the race. Not only do those three drivers have smarts and past 500 wins, but they possess fast engines with the Hendrick Motorsports name powering their rides.

TOP 5 at DAYTONA

1. #48  Jimmie Johnson         8-1

2. #14  Sterling Marlin          85-1

3. #31  Jeff Burton                35-1

4. #8     Dale Earnhardt Jr     5-1

5. #26  Jamie McMurray     25-1