NASCAR back bigger than
ever at Daytona on FOX

Feb 6, 2007 5:48 AM

It seems like only yesterday that Jimmie Johnson was crowned the Nextel Cup Champion, while Greg Biffle was winning the 2006 season finale in Miami.

After a brief vacation through the winter holidays, NASCAR drivers got back into action with several sponsorship appearances across the country. They also managed a few test sessions between Daytona and Las Vegas.

This weekend the drivers get back into a routine they will continue each week until the end of November. Saturday night is the Budweiser Shootout from Daytona under the lights and nationally televised by FOX. The race is a 70 lap non-points exhibition consisting of all the drivers winning a pole in 2006 along with past Bud Shootout winners.

The last two seasons have seen the best car sit back and block for a teammate buddy to win the race. In 2005 Jeff Gordon easily had the best car in the field, but chose to let Jimmie Johnson get some Daytona excitement. Gordon is a two time winner of the event. Johnson is his protégé and, more importantly, the race doesn’t count in the standings.

Last season two time Bud Shootout winner Tony Stewart sat back and blocked for his rookie teammate Denny Hamlin. Like Gordon, J-Stew could and would have pressed the issue for a win had it been the Daytona 500.

Having laid that precedence down as a back drop, it leaves the field of 24 starting drivers wide open in what amounts to a glorified sprint race. After looking at the Daytona pre-season testing and what has transpired in restrictor plate racing the last two years, it appears only 10 cars have the possibility of winning.

Narrowing the list further, I think we’re safe in selecting a couple top choices and then one or two medium to long shot drivers.

Figure the trio of Hendrick cars driven by Johnson, Gordon, and Kyle Busch to set the pace with Dale Earnhardt Jr and Stewart staying close. As with all plate race dashes, there will be two freight trains of cars — one up high and one low. I think Busch will be the driver that the team tries to get into a plate race winner’s circle.

Look for a good effort out of the Penske duo of Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman down the stretch. Shop around because the Penske drivers can fetch a good price. Kurt Busch and the Miller Lite team would love nothing better to roll up in the Bud sponsored race and take the checkers. Other than the short tracks, plate races have been a place where Busch looks most comfortable.

It’s hard to bet against Dale Jr in the Shootout. In six career starts, he has finished no worse than 7, with an average finish of 3.3. What’s amazing is that he also has the worst average start in the race at 15.8. The shootout lineup is done by a drawing. In the one and only Shootout that Junior did win, he started last at 19.

Though the race is an exhibition, the payday for winning is still all cash. The winner will get $215,000, meaning that the drivers will be all business.

500 Qualifying

Sunday morning, the drivers will be qualifying for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. The top two will be guaranteed a position for the race. The remaining drivers will have to battle for a spot by competing in one of the two Gatorade Duel 150-milers on Feb. 15.

Each is a 60 lap dash with about 12 entries eliminated from competing in Sunday’s race complete 500 lineup is determined from where the drivers finish in the Twin 150s. Odds are currently available at Station and Hilton books for both 60 lap races. The Bud shootout and Daytona 500 odds have been up for over a month at most Nevada books.

Roush fan club

Despite American automaker woes in Detroit like Ford’s 104-year worst $12.7 billion loss, Roush has rallied the troops. Owner Jack is not too happy about Toyota coming to America with their deep pockets full of unlimited cash. He is on record vowing to go to war with them.

Look for the NASCAR Nation to follow similar sentiment and campaign against Toyota with signs, boos and turning the cheek on actual purchases on the car lots. The latter is where it really hurts.

Vegas testing

The sessions at the newly configured Las Vegas facility had times that resembled those of the sister tracks at Texas, Atlanta, and Charlotte. The top time came from Elliott Sadler at 188.77 mph, 14 mph faster than Kasey Kahne’s track record.

The entire Evernham fleet of Dodges was strong over the two days with both Scott Riggs and Kahne posting solid times. The relevance between Atlanta, Charlotte, and Texas was evident after seeing those cars again post fast times. Yates Racing was surprisingly strong. The Fords of David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd were solid and consistent, while Paul Menard ran the second fastest lap. Also, Junior blew two engines.

Open wheel invasion

Last season Penske’s Indy Racing driver Sam Hornish Jr, the 2006 IRL champ, made his NASCAR debut in the Busch Series. This season he’ll make 11 attempts in No. 39 Penske Busch Series ride, sharing time with both Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Shortly after, Formula One superstar Juan Pablo Montoya announced he had taken less money to join Chip Ganassi and drive the 42 Texaco Dodge. Montoya is 75/1 to win the 500 and 85/1 to take the Nextel Cup.

Also, Penske Brazilian driver Helio Castro-Neves has expressed interest in one day driving for the "Popular America Series." Ganassi’s Englishman, 2005 IRL champion Dan Wheldon, also one day would like take stock cars for a spin. Asked last week at the Vegas testing if winning the Indy 500 as a rookie gives him confidence to do the same at Daytona, Montoya emphatically said, "No!