NASCAR thunder ready to roll in Florida

February 13, 2001 7:16 AM
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Can you feel the Thunder?

It’s back.

The 2001 NASCAR season kicks off this weekend with "The Great American Race."

The main topic of conversation centers around Dodge, which makes its first NASCAR appearance since 1985. There’s also the restrictor plate package to make the cars go slower than usual in an attempt to make the race more competitive and safer.

For the thousands of devoted Las Vegas bettors, Daytona gives another chance to sift through the drivers and make some money after a three-month dry spell. It’s become a business for some. Touts have risen proclaiming their prowess in NASCAR — as they do in the other sports. Handle has increased at nearly every sports book in Nevada over the last three seasons. This one should be no different.

The favorite coming into the race is Dale Jarrett (7-2). His three Daytona 500 wins make him the active leader. Four Daytona wins overall tie him with two others. He blazed into Daytona last season as defending Winston Cup champion and dominated every race during Speedweeks. He followed up that performance with a near victory, second-place finish in the Daytona fall event.

Car owner Robert Yates has always had success at Daytona, dating back to Davey Allison’s two wins in 1989 and ’92. There’s little doubt that Jarrett won’t be able to contend for the win again, but that little comes via NASCAR sanctions.

The restrictor plate package at this year’s Daytona 500 is similar to the one used at Talladega’s fall race, which had 21 different lap leaders. If similar occurrences unfold, that means several of the cars that used to be inferior to Jarrett’s will be brought closer to his level. Then he’d have more to worry about than the normal eight or 10 drivers who usually run off into the lead pack.

Jarrett is likely to be there near the end. That’s where all his Daytona experience will make a difference. He’s a tough driver to bet against, but he’s also tough to make some good money on. Station Casinos has him listed as the favorite. Boyd Casinos made him the second at 9-2.

Going by the trends, Bobby Labonte (9-2) is destined to win his first Daytona 500. In the previous two seasons, the reigning Cup champion has roared in and stamped their territory as Daytona 500 champs. Jeff Gordon did it ’99. Jarrett followed suit in 2000.

Once again, most of the tickets written in Nevada sports books to win the Daytona 500 are on Dale Earnhardt (9-2). He’s the fan favorite, the sentimental choice to win. Unlike some fan favorites, though, Earnhardt can actually win. His swagger on the track always instills fear and respect in all the other drivers — hence the nickname, "The Intimidator".

Jeff Gordon (5-1) has a new paint scheme and new attitude. He’s hungry. He wants to win for the fifth time at Daytona. That would make him the career active leader in that category. After his ’99 Daytona 500 win, he was a non-factor in the next three Daytona races. His recent history suggests he won’t be on par with his storied past, but that’s hard to forget.

Many choose Jeff Burton (8-1) to win the Cup championship in 2001. While not known for his exploits on the fast tracks, he compiled an impressive showing at Daytona, compared to some of the other top drivers. In his last three races, he finished in the top three each time — third in fall ’99, second in spring 2000, first in fall 2000. That type of progression is also in line with his overall performance over those years.

 

TOP 5 FINISH PREDICTION:

1. No. 18 Bobby Labonte (9-2) 4. No. 99 Jeff Burton (8-1)
2. No. 88 Dale Jarrett (7-2) 5. No. 3 Dale Earnhardt (9-2)
3. No. 28 Ricky Rudd (8-1)

Vegas bookmakers choices to win Daytona 500:

Hugh Citron, Mandalay Bay: Jeff Gordon — "Without Gordon on top, the NASCAR world seems so nice. I like the tension and disdain when he wins."

Mark Rubin, Santa Fe Station: Dale Jarrett — "He won last season and has always performed well there."

Ed Salmons, Imperial Palace: Jeff Gordon — "The race is wide open. It looks like the right spot for Gordon to get back on track."

Fred Crespi, Sunset Station: Dale Jarrett — "I expect to see him in the winner’s circle and give his new sponsor exactly what they paid for."

Jeff Stoneback, Excalibur: Tony Stewart — "I liked what I saw out of him in the Pepsi 400 last year. He learned patience is the key to winning."

Kelly Downey, Fiesta: Dale Jarrett — "Mr. Daytona is going to be very tough to beat."

        Mark Bryant, Wild Wild West: Terry Labonte – "I like what the Hendrick program has done. Terry Labonte has always run well, but never         won. Could be a great long shot."