No love taps for Jr. in 500

Feb 12, 2008 9:33 PM
Finish Line by Micah Roberts |

EDITORS NOTE: Our GT auto racing columnist Micah Roberts nailed the Bud Shootout last week, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning and all five picks finishing in the top 10 positions.

Last week’s Bud Shootout really got the blood and adrenaline flowing during the final laps as Dale Earnhardt Jr won the race as a 3-1 favorite.

All the major candidates to win this Sunday’s 50th running of the Daytona 500 participated in the Shootout and all the major storylines of the race surround them.

Hendrick Motorsports showed just how far ahead of everyone else they are in restrictor plate racing by having all four of their drivers finish in the top 6 during the Shootout. In the last 15 plate races, a Hendrick driver has won nine times.

When you now factor in Junior with all his plate race wins, Hendrick can lay claim to drivers having won 16 of the last 27 plate races. The trio of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Earnhardt Jr have been the most dominant plate drivers over the last seven seasons. It’s not hard to figure out why they are the favorites, led by Junior at 5-1 to win on Sunday.

Only two drivers have multiple restrictor plate wins over the last seven years, other than the Hendrick trio and they both come in with souped-up Toyotas. Tony Stewart is a two-time Daytona winner at the July Firecracker 400 and Michael Waltrip is a two-time Daytona 500 winner.

Last season Toyota came in weak with not much test time at all prior to Daytona and suffered miserably. This season, with the help of Joe Gibbs, they look strong and have the ability to pull an upset over Hendrick. Stewart is listed currently at 6-1, but opened in late November at 16-1. Odds were so high on Stewart just because of the switch from Chevy to Toyota.

Because of the Gibbs influence, every Toyota team has benefited from their knowledge. We know teammates Waltrip and Dale Jarrett do well in plate races, but they haven’t had anything capable of keeping up with the top teams. Now it looks like they may. Jarrett’s odds to win opened up at 150-1 and is down to 55-1. Waltrip opened at 100-1 and is now at 40-1. Both veteran drivers are legitimate longshot candidates to win.

We don’t want to put too much weight into what we witnessed in the 70-lap Bud Shootout last week. However, some observations are just too obvious to discount. Stewart didn’t have anyone out there when he needed help in the draft. He attempted to hang with Junior and run with him as much as possible, but it was apparent that his Toyota wasn’t welcome in the Chevy draft train.

When it came near the end, Junior got in line with his new teammates and let them push him to the win, which of course brings up another interesting point. An exhibition race is not hard to stay in line with to get a new teammate some confidence, but when the Daytona 500 is at stake with three laps to go, you have to believe that Gordon and Johnson start racing for their sponsors, and not Hendrick. They may say the politically correct thing coming into the race about being happy having Junior part of the team, but the Daytona 500 is the pinnacle. Gordon and Johnson are top dogs.

History says Junior doesn’t have a good shot at winning this week. Only five times in the 29-year history of the Bud Shootout has the winner has gone on to win in the Daytona 500. Only Bobby Allison (1982), Bill Elliott (1987) Dale Jarrett (1996 and 2000) and Jeff Gordon (1997) have done it. The last time Junior won the Shootout in 2003, he dominated. He then went on to dominate a Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying race. He was a 5-2 favorite to win the Daytona 500, but had issues early and finished a lap down in 36th.

It would be a fantastic story for NASCAR if Junior, its biggest star, wins the race. However, the team he’s on presents just too much competition for him, and they won’t let him win like they did at the Shootout. All the teams use their backup cars for the Shootout while saving their best for the 500. Both Gordon and Johnson went to a third car after a wreck in practice and ran in the top 4, quite an impressive feat.

The driver we haven’t talked yet about on Team Hendrick is Casey Mears, who finished sixth in the Shootout and second two years in the Daytona 500. When Junior came aboard, Mears took over the No. 5 team that Kyle Busch piloted. Mears is nice medium range long shot to win with odds seen as high as 30-1 to win.

We love a good fairy tale story, but it’s hard to look past Johnson and Gordon in this race. They got Junior going in 2008 with support in the Shootout and now it’s time for Junior to lay-up and win future support by pushing one of his new teammates to the front.

PT’s and Kurt

If you have wanted to sit with a NASCAR Cup team during a race, then you better start playing at your neighborhood PT’s Tavern. They will draw for a pair of hot passes that lets you hang with Kurt Busch and the Miller Lite team during the entire Las Vegas race weekend.

You can’t buy these anywhere, you just have get lucky, and now the opportunity is there. They’ll also be giving away 10 sets of weekend passes to the Vegas race. PT’s has also made it be known that all 37 of their taverns will show every NASCAR race with sound – a huge bonus for Vegas NASCAR fans.

PT’s has marketed themselves to the NASCAR community like no other business in Las Vegas, other than the Speedway, and it will pave the way for several others as they reel in big numbers.

Signup for Fiesta

Sunday is the last day to sign up for Fiesta Rancho and Henderson’s NASCAR Last Man Standing contest. There is a $25 entry fee (buy three get one free) with the winner getting at least a guaranteed $10,000.

Each week, 10 matchups for each race will be set. Just pick the winner and your entry advances to the next week. This process goes on every week until only person remains.