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NASCAR returns with Daytona 500

Feb 10, 2009 5:12 PM
Finish Line by Micah Roberts |

Kyle Busch’s early favorite to win race

The NASCAR Sprint Cup season officially kicks off this Sunday with its most popular race, the Daytona 500. Unlike all the other sports that have their featured event at the end of the season, NASCAR comes out swinging right out of the gate.

This is the race that every race team and driver shoots for, and for some, more so than others because of the current economic status. Of the 56 drivers entered in the race, only 43 will make it after Thursday’s Twin Gatorade duels.

Winning the race makes a drivers’ legacy. It forever defines them as a winner regardless of what they do for the rest of their career. Last year’s winner, Ryan Newman, had a terrible season following his win, but it’s safe to say he wouldn’t trade that win for anything.

For the last decade the underlying theme coming into Daytona has been the pressing question of who can stop the Chevrolets, which have dominated restrictor plate races with the likes DEI and Hendrick Motorsports doing most of the winning.

However, this season looks more evenly balanced across the top tiered teams than ever before. The Toyotas and Fords have taken it up a notch and for that, this looks to be one of the most competitive 500’s on paper in recent years.

Toyota began the charge last season led by the Joe Gibbs trio of drivers headed by this week’s favorite Kyle Busch. Busch dominated in all the plate races last season and easily had the best car in last year’s 500.

Yet, all of the Gibbs cars will be strong! As for value at the betting windows, Busch can be found in the range of 5- or 6-to-1, but the real value may be with Denny Hamlin in the 15-to-1 range, and if you want a live dog simply because of the car, Joey Logano in Tony Stewart’s old ride at 40-to-1 is a nice look.

Since the demise of Robert Yates racing, the Fords have never really been taken seriously as possible contenders to win the Daytona 500, but that may change after this week. Jack Roush has never looked at plate racing as a top priority, but based on the way his cars looked in the Bud Shootout, it looks like the Cat in the Hat has put some kind of emphasis on getting his first Daytona 500 victory. Every one of his drivers can be found in the 20-to-1 range or higher, including Jamie McMurray at 35-to-1, who has won the most recent plate race for Roush.

The most interesting Ford of all, for nostalgia purposes, may be the Wood Brothers famous No. 21 Ford driven by Bill Elliott. They blazed the single fastest lap in two separate practice sessions and qualified well enough to ensure that the car will be racing Sunday regardless of what happens in the Twin 150’s. Is he strong enough to force someone to make a wager? At 200-to-1 opening "field" odds, absolutely! At 30-to-1 field odds, maybe not so much.

As for the Dodges, last year’s manufacturer to win the 500, they look terrible. Kurt Busch leads the short list of qualified candidates to win only because of his past skills in plate races. He has yet to win a plate race but has been a top contender to do so just about every time out. Even though odds of 20-to-1 may sound good, he’ll have it tough with no wing man driving with him. Ryan Newman, who he helped push to victory last season, is gone and taking his place is David Stremme.

So we have established that Toyota has the individual favorite to win, Ford is better than ever and Dodge is terrible. How about the Chevrolets?

The Chevys are the favorite to win Sunday only because of their stable of strong cars led by Hendrick Motorsports. Following them, you have the Childress group led by last week’s Bud Shootout winner and 2007 Daytona 500 winner, Kevin Harvick. Next up is the DEI cars which look much better than last year with Martin Truex, Jr. currently pole sitting. The new and improved entry this season is Tony Stewart’s team that he’ll pilot and have Ryan Newman at his side as wing man assisting.

Of all the Chevys, I must say I was more impressed by what has happened with the Stewart team. Stewart buys into a part ownership role and has made it look so easy, and so quick. Stewart winning would make a great story because of the impact he has made, and also because he has never won the 500.

The team to beat with the stable of fast horses is Hendrick. By cutting Casey Mears loose, they trimmed the fat and added Mark Martin making this the leanest Super team NASCAR has ever seen. All four of the Hendrick cars have a chance to win the race. Martin now has his best chance of winning the Daytona 500. He has never won here and should he do it, every NASCAR fan would rejoice in happiness for him because he’s such a classy person.

The driver who looks best on paper combining practice speeds with past history, and of course pedigree is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He started off last season by winning the Bud Shootout and one of the duels and then had trouble in the big race. He found trouble in the shootout already, so look for him to win one of the duels on Thursday and then contend for the win Sunday where he’ll have to hold off all three of his teammates.

Jeff Gordon is the driver I believe will step it up and use Daytona as a stage to show that he’s back. Being part owner of his team and not winning a race last season didn’t sit well with Gordon. Even though he’ll be using another car than what he used in the Shootout, there was enough evidence there to show his team is much better in their plate program.

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