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Will Next-el phase
begin with a Biffle?

Feb 10, 2004 5:44 AM

This Sunday the Nextel Cup era officially begins with NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.

If last week’s Bud Shootout is any indication, it doesn’t appear any of the changes to the aerodynamics of the car will make any real noticeable difference from what we’ve seen the last two years in restrictor plates races. If this is true, it could be another DEI Sunday.

In the last 12 restrictor plate races, the DEI cars driven by Michael Waltrip (5-1) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (4-1) have won nine. One of the major differences witnessed from the racing action was that passing was difficult and it could only be done on the inside. Should race day conditions be the same, this will definitely favor the favorites.

Here’s a look at who some of Las Vegas’ top auto racing experts like in the 500:

Jay Kornegay — Imperial Palace: "It has to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s been so close in the 500, even unselfish in the matter of Waltrip’s first win there, that I think he’s bound to win sooner than later. He’s too good there not to win the track’s biggest race."

Hugh Citron — Mandalay Bay: "Jeff Gordon has kind of taken a back seat of late to all the new kids on the block, but I got a feeling he’s about to show the rest of the series a few tricks and win another championship. He’s finally rid himself of all the misery involved with that messy divorce. Between having his head right and no one active winning more races at Daytona, I’ll take Gordon."

Karen Ray — Circus Circus: "Waltrip would be an easy choice, but I’m looking at John Andretti as a surprise. I’ve got a sneaky suspicion the DEI team took a Red Budweiser car, spray painted it yellow, and put a No. 1 on it. That car was just too fast during testing to be one of the old Steve Park/Jeff Green Pennzoil cars."

Jeff Motley — Las Vegas Motor Speedway: "The Chevys are going to be awfully tough. The DEI cars are still the ones to beat, but it looks like Childress and Hendrick are catching up. Because of the smaller fuel cells, I could see some different type things happening where a surprise driver wins it like happened with Greg Biffle last July. Someone to keep an eye on is Jeremy Mayfield for Dodge."

Kelly Airgood — Boulder Station: "After reviewing the test times, I like Jimmie Johnson to win and Elliott Sadler to be close. Johnson has done exceptionally well on Superspeedways and I think Sadler is ready to break loose this season with the new and improved Yates team."

Jonathan Swain — Santa Fe Station: "I think Waltrip and Junior will lead the early stages of the race, but after a few pit sequences one of our local drivers will take the lead and hang on. Kurt Busch has been excellent in the last two Daytona 500s and it’s his turn to win."

Fred Crespi ”” Palms: "I like Kevin Harvick. I’ve been impressed by the resurgence of Childress. The team has been on the verge and I just like the organization altogether. Hendrick should be a very close second. A good long shot to look at is Johnny Benson in the No. 09, a car that has done very well the last couple of years with restrictor plates."

Bert Osborne ”” Coast Resorts: "It’s got to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year, but we’ll definitely have a rooting interest with Brendan Gaughan."

Jay Rood ”” Mirage: "I like the Ganassi Dodges of Marlin and McMurray with a slight lean to McMurray."

Watch out for JJ

Jimmie Johnson (8-1) looks to be as good a choice as any to challenge DEI’s dominance. He was fourth overall fastest, tied with Waltrip in Daytona testing last month and has shown a knack for racing at Daytona in his first 4 official races that include two Top 5’s and nothing worse than 18th. The two years of experience under his belt won’t hurt.

To be able to beat DEI, Johnson will have to receive help from teammate Gordon and others in the draft. Expect Kevin Harvick to be one of the others that will help. Harvick will do what he can to breakup the DEI train and take his chances with the Hendrick boys. Even though Childress and DEI have always had a great alliance, they’ll all being gunning for Waltrip.

If Junior should falter again, Waltrip may get support from another teammate John Andretti. Though Andretti’s reputation has been somewhat tarnished driving for the awful Petty team the last few years, the fact remains he has won at Daytona and has a fast car this week. Look for six to seven cars coming down the backstretch into turn 3, where the winning move will be made.

I see Johnson making that move.

Not Junior’s day-tona

As you can see, Junior is not present anywhere on my list of drivers to watch. It isn’t because I dislike him, I admire his skills and everything he represents immensely. It’s merely because I want to save Junior’s first Daytona 500 for further down the road.

As great a story as it was that he won the Pepsi 400 on the first race back at Daytona after his father’s death, it would be just as emotionally moving if it took him a decade or so to finally win the great race that eluded his father for so long. True, Junior is too good not to win, but his father was in the same boat every year at Daytona.

Everyone knew Dale Sr., was the best with the draft and most of the time had the best car. However, he just couldn’t stay on the track for 500 miles until that day in ’98. For the sake of a great continuous story that mounts each year he doesn’t win, then culminates into magic when he finally does, lets wait a few years.