|Danica Patrick, NASCAR's biggest star|
NASCAR officially kicks off its 2012 racing season this Sunday with the 54th annual running of its great American race: the Daytona 500. From what we've observed from Daytona preliminary events, such as the Budweiser Shootout and both Gatorade Duels, there's plenty of reason to believe that Sunday's 500 is going to be filled with massive excitement and quickly become a true test of man and machine.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
Two car tandem racing is virtually over in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing. This aspect to the restrictor plate events, at Daytona and Talladega, hit huge last year and was not well received by the fans. The truth be known, NASCAR officials weren't that thrilled about it either.
To counteract the concept, NASCAR issued a series of rule changes during the preseason that included reductions in the grill openings on the front of the cars, a reduction in the engine's cooling systems and a reduction in the size of the rear spoilers. They also eliminated the multi channel radio systems the drivers used last season to set up their two car tandems. At no point did NASCAR actually forbid the use of tandem racing. They just used the rule changes to make it unfeasible. Too much time spent in a two by two grouping could lead to engine overheating issues. Drivers discovered that anything past three laps caused a significant rise in the water temperature gauge.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean we won't see the two car tandem on Sunday. Don't be too surprised if you see it during the final three laps of the race when it's race to the checkers time.
Changes to size of the rear spoiler has created some changes in the handling package of the cars. Drivers are going to have to be very careful with bump drafting especially when making contact with the left rear side of the car in front of them. The possibility of launching a multi car, "big one", crash is very present. We certainly saw evidence of that during last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout as well as Thursday's Gatorade Duels.
We will all be watching the progress of Danica Patrick during the Daytona 500 as she makes her official NASCAR Sprint Cup debut. She has been "THE" story all during Speedweeks over the past few weeks. Last year Patrick ran a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule while completing the final year of her contract with her Indy Car team. This year she's racing the full time Nationwide schedule plus ten Sprint Cup events.
It's been very obvious that her transition from Indy Car to NASCAR has been handled with a great deal of intelligence and patience. The progress of that effort is definitely beginning to show. On Sunday she will join Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson to become only the third female driver in Daytona 500 history to start the Great American Race. A top ten finish on Sunday will earn her the record of being the highest female finisher in the 500. Guthrie currently holds the record with an 11th place finish in 1980. From what we've seen so far this year, a top ten for Danica Patrick is actually very possible.
Will we see another Cinderella story, similar to Trevor Bayne's stunning win last year, at the conclusion of the Daytona 500 on Sunday? From what was observed during the Shootout and the Duels this week it's extremely possible. NASCAR's restrictor plate races has a tendency to rewards drivers and teams that we least expected to see in victory lane.
Keep an eye on Kurt Busch and the James Finch owned Phoenix Racing operation. I don't think anyone would be that surprised if they won this year's Daytona 500.
There's also a couple of emotional angles connected to Sunday's Daytona 500 that could create a special moment in victory lane. Mega team owner Rick Hendrick has 199 NASCAR Sprint Cup wins. It's been reported that, for quite some time, Hendrick has been bringing a large bag of racing caps, commemorating his 200th win, to the race tracks just waiting for the opportunity to pass them out in victory lane.
It also seems that Hendrick's four drivers are involved in some sort of in house competition to give the boss that special victory. This is especially true of Dale Earnhardt Jr because another Daytona 500 win on Sunday would also eradicate that pesky 129 winless streak that everyone keeps asking him about. You've also got to believe that team newcomer Kasey Kahne would love to start his new job off right by giving Mr. H that 200th win.
Meanwhile in Ford land, Jack Roush is celebrating his 25th season as a NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner. You can bet that anyone of his four drivers would love to start that anniversary off with a Daytona 500 win and then finish the 25th season by giving their boss another Sprint Cup title.
THE LAS VEGAS BREAKDOWN
With NASCAR restrictor plate racing's tendency to create surprise endings, one has to believe that there is a large variety of drivers who could possibly win the Daytona 500. To help us sort through the possibilities, we again turn to the professional number crunchers from "The Las Vegas Insider", (LVI).
Topping the LVI's Daytona rankings is a quartet of drivers that has to be considered top notch wager considerations. Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Kyle Busch are rated at 10 to 1 odds to win the 54th running of the Daytona 500.
Kevin Harvick has proven he can get the job done. He's a two time winner at the Daytona Speedway with five top finishes and nine top tens. He also has a healthy average finish ratio, (AFR), of 15.6. Also, his Daytona driver rating of 86.3 ranks him tenth among his Sprint Cup peers.
Not even landing a race car on its roof, during last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, is going to deter four time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon's chances for victory this Sunday. The three time winner Daytona 500 winner, and six time speedway winner, also has career stats that includes 12 top fives, 19 top tens, an AFR of 15.5 and a Daytona driver rating of 89.4 which ranks him fourth among Sprint Cup drivers.
Get ready Junior Nation, Sunday could be your favorite driver's day. There is an aura of increased confidence and determination from Dale Earnhardt Jr these days and it seems to be coming from crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt's Daytona Speedway numbers are strong and includes two wins, eight top fives, 13 to tens. He also has an AFR of 15,0 along with a Daytona driver rating of 87.1 which places him eighth on the driver list. Sunday could very well be the day he finally returns to victory lane.
Never overlook the presence of Kyle Busch in any Sprint Cup race he enters. He certainly proved that last Saturday night when he stole the Budweiser Shootout during the final 100 feet of the race. He has one win at Daytona along with five top fives, six top tens along with a 17.6 AFR. His Daytona driver rating of 98.7 has him ranked at first on the list.
All by himself, at 12 to 1, is Tony Stewart who is another outstanding wager consideration. "Smoke" already has enjoyed an outstanding week at Daytona with a second place in the Budweiser Shootout and a win in last Thursday's first Gatorade Duel qualifying race. When you add up all of Stewart's Daytona wins, from all of NASCAR's racing divisions, he's visited victory lane there 16 times. None of them has been for winning the Daytona 500. However he does have an excellent Daytona driver rating of 98.2 which ranks him second among his peers. If you believe in the power of numerology, Sunday will be Stewart's 14th Daytona 500 start in car #14.
At 15 to 1 are five noteworthy drivers featuring Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and A J Allmendinger. Johnson is a former 500 winner with six top fives, nine top tens and an AFR of 17.0. He's also ranked 6th in the series' driver ratings with a healthy 87.5.
Believe it or not, Carl Edwards is still seeking his first victory of any kind at Daytona. But he does have five top five finishes along with six top tens and a 17.9 AFR. But this is one those high powered Roush Fenway Fords that has been so strong during Daytona Speedweeks. Edwards proved that point by taking the pole position last Sunday. He's definitely wager worthy.
Kasey Kahne's numbers at Daytona aren't that strong but, bear in mind, that he is now sitting in the best ride he's ever had in his career. As the new member of Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne will be starting the new racing season with high expectations. No one should be surprised if he wins on Sunday.
Jamie McMurray, and his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has been very impressive during Speedweeks. The car has displayed a great deal of speed and good handling. He's a two time winner at Daytona and appears that the obstacles that plagued this team all through last year may be gone. McMurray is a good long shot wager consideration.
A J Allmendinger will be making his debut for Roger Penske Racing in a points paying event. His Dodge has showed some strength during Speedweeks. He's also a long shot option worthy of a second look.
Looking now at the LVI's middle tier rankings, the trio of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer will be seeking their first Daytona win on Sunday and are ranked at 20 to 1.
But it's the LVI's 25 to 1 group that's really interesting. Matt Kenseth, a Daytona 500 winner and the winner of a Gatorade Duel last Thursday is in this group. So is Roush Fenway Ford driver Greg Biffle who also has a win at Daytona and will be starting Sunday's race on the outside pole. Kurt Busch is also in the 25 to 1 group and his Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, obtained from Hendrick Motorsports, has looked very strong during Speedweeks. All three of these drivers are solid long shots. Joey Logano is also ranked at 25 to 1.
All by himself, at 30 to 1, is Jeff Burton. Both this driver and his Richard Childress Racing team seems to be rejuvenated for the new season. At 35 to 1 you will find Ryan Newman, a former Daytona 500 winner, and Juan Pablo Montoya. The 40 to 1 group is led by Michael Waltrip Racing drivers Martin Truex Jr and Mark Martin along with Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard.
In the LVI's lower tiers you will find Danica Patrick ranked at 60 to 1 for her NASCAR Sprint Cup debut. David Ragan, a former Daytona winner, Reagan Smith, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr are ranked at 75 to 1. From this group, Bayne and Smith could possibly turn into lucrative long shots. Closing the LVI Daytona rankings, at 100 to 1, are Bobby Labonte, David Gilliland and Dave Blaney. All others, not listed, are automatically rated at 30 to 1.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants to remind you that these posted numbers should be viewed as informational and entertainment data. They neither encourage, nor condone, the placing of wagers on their races.
The trouble with betting on the Daytona 500 is the fact that NASCAR restrictor plate racing is so very unpredictable and can easily send the completely unexpected to victory lane. Trevor Bayne and David Ragan scoring their first ever Cup wins at Daytona last year is a perfect example. One possible approach is to spilt your wager budget between the strong contenders and the serious long shots.
Or you could do something really nice and donate your wager budget to the Chad Knaus, "Oops I Did It Again" punishment fund. (Come on, you knew I was going there sooner or later.)
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
The 54th running of the Daytona 500 is 200 laps/500 miles around the Daytona International Speedway's mammoth 2.5 mile tri oval with its 31 degrees of banking in the turns. It's anticipated that the 168,000 seats, and the infield camping area, are going to be completely filled.
The Daytona 500 is also one of the most lucrative motorsports events in the world. The purse for the 2012 race is a record setting $19,142,601 with the winner's share being at least $1,431,325. There's also a $200,000 bonus to the driver who leads lap 100, the halfway point of the race.
The first ever Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and was won by Lee Petty. Since that time 518 drivers have competed in at least one Daytona 500 while 306 drives have competed in at least two or more Great American Races. There has been 35 different winners of the Daytona 500. "King" Richard Petty leads the Daytona 500 win list with a total of seven victories. Jeff Gordon leads the modern day active drivers with six Daytona wins, including three Daytona 500's. The Wood Brothers, the 2011 defending Daytona 500 champions, holds the Daytona record for team wins at 15.
The 54th Annual Daytona 500 will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 12 pm eastern time. The re air will be presented on Wednesday, February 29th, on SPEED beginning at 12 pm et.