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McReynolds: ‘I honestly believe Earnhardt is the man to beat’
With Speedweeks in full swing, the SPEED™ on-air personalities covering Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona (Thurs. 2pm ET on SPEED) share their thoughts on the week’s events and storylines, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick, the COT, Kurt Busch/Tony Stewart and Toyota's improvement.  Following are quotes from Steve Byrnes, Jeff Hammond, Larry McReynolds and Krista Voda:

With Dale Jr.’s win in the Bud Shootout and the No. 48 on the pole for the Daytona 500, can anyone stop the Hendrick freight train?

Larry McReynolds, SPEED analyst for the Gatorade Duel at Daytona:  We anticipated this Hendrick domination -- not just the broadcasters and the fans -- but the competition as well.  When we finished up in 2007, everyone, especially the competition, knew if they were to dethrone Hendrick’s domination it was going to take some work.  Halfway through Daytona testing last month I said on one of the SPEED broadcasts that if you’re going to be good at Daytona, you will have to beat either Hendrick or Toyota.  That came to fruition because in the top 10 in qualifying, there were only two cars that were either not a Toyota or not a Hendrick-affiliated car, including Nemechek’s Chevrolet engine supplied by Hendrick.  Like Richard Childress told me at Las Vegas testing, Hendrick can be beat and they will be beat.  This type of domination is what we often see in NASCAR.  These things go in cycles but I will say Hendrick is a pretty large part of the cycle and it looks like they won’t go away anytime soon.

Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst for the Gatorade Duel at Daytona:  I absolutely think Hendrick can be challenged.  We’ve already seen that Michael Waltrip Racing is 100-percent better than they were last year.  Joe Gibbs Racing has shown they have come a long way in a short amount of time.  Dave Blaney and Bill Davis Racing are another team that has been around for a long time and is as ready as anybody to get to Victory Lane and show the success of Toyota.  He kind of led the way last year for Toyota.  Tommy Baldwin and everyone there have been to Victory Lane at Daytona before and know how sweet it is. Don’t underestimate that group.  Tommy Baldwin learned Saturday in the Shootout that two tires was not the way to go but they may have tried it to see if it was a gamble worth taking.

Steve Byrnes, host of Trackside Live and NASCAR Live on SPEED:  If anybody else is going to win the championship, they’re obviously going to have to go through Hendrick Motorsports.  Jimmie Johnson has won two in a row and he said on Trackside the other night that he’s starting with a clean slate and going for three in a row. He also said he realizes that past success doesn’t guarantee 10 wins or current success.  The No. 48 team does things a little differently and it pays off.  Jeff Gordon had a tremendous season last year and the only thing that kept from winning his fifth championship was his teammate.  By winning the Shootout, Dale Earnhardt Jr. showed he’s fast right off the truck.  But we shouldn’t overlook Casey Mears who is sort of the forgotten man in all of this. He won last year at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and with Alan Gustafson as his crew chief this year, I think they will surprise us.  With all that talent, I don’t see Hendrick slowing down a bit.

Who is your prediction to win the 50th Daytona 500?

McReynolds: Predicting the winner of the Daytona 500 is almost like trying to predict the exact temperature down to the tenth of a degree for the race next week.  That’s how great the competition is.  But I honestly believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the man to beat.  He’s with a great team and is in great equipment.  He’s obviously got all the elements in place and like I said on a lot of the SPEED broadcasts this week, he is focused and has no distractions.  He’s tickled with life and winning the Shootout the other night just boosted his confidence that much more.  Dale Jr. understands this place.  He’s not worrying about battling with DEI or Teresa or any of the other elements he was dealing with last year.  There are a lot of elements that have to line up for anyone to win the race but if you held a gun to my head and asked me to predict the winner, I believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the man.

Hammond: I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one of the best shots of anyone there.  He’s got a very solid team behind him and a little momentum on his side.  If he is able to pull off a win in one of the Duel races, I think he will be hard to stop.

Byrnes:  Choosing a Daytona 500 winner is somewhat of a wild card right now because based on the Shootout the other night, there was so much apprehension about this new race car.  This Car of Tomorrow, which is now the car of everywhere, had never raced at Daytona before.  Teams have really gotten used to it, are figuring out how to work on it and drivers are figuring out what they can and can’t do on the track.  The reason I say it will be a wild card is because in qualifying Sunday, we had 43 cars separated by eight-tenths of a second.  That’s pretty amazing.  I still think the Toyotas have gotten a lot better but you’re going to have to beat the 48 or the 24.  Having said that, I really like Tony Stewart’s chances to win the 500 for the first time.

Have you seen enough of Dale Jr. with Hendrick on the open tracks to predict how he’ll do the rest of the year?
McReynolds: I was at the Vegas test and Dale Jr. was the best Hendrick car.  The thing that impressed me the most, and I think this shows his commitment and his focus, was that in just about every practice session, he ran the most laps of anybody.  On the second day of testing at Vegas, he ran about 70 laps with one car. I think he looked awfully good at Vegas.  Right now, my inclination for Jr.’s success this season is not just a Talladega or Daytona deal.  I think that group will have its act together week in and week out.  I’d be surprised if they don’t win three, four or five points races this year.

What are you watching for Thursday in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona on SPEED?

McReynolds: What we’re all down here for, what all the attention, preparation and talk have been about for the past few months, is the 50th annual Daytona 500.  The Daytona 500 is a big deal.  Because it is the 50th, it certainly carries a lot more attention and clout this year.  There is no question it would be huge for a driver, team, crew chief or owner to put on his resume that he is champion of the 50th Daytona 500.  Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races are huge.  They are huge every single year.  With the new format locking in the top 35 and only two spots per race available, unlike back in the day when we had 14 or 15 spots, it is more drama than we have all year at any track or any qualifying session.  There will be some broken hearts because after qualifying and by virtue of the top 35 rule, they are not locked in yet. Boris Said qualified ninth and he is not locked in yet.  We’ve got several other cars in the top 15 to 20 that have fast race cars.  Brian Vickers, Patrick Carpentier, and AJ Allmendinger are not locked in.  If you miss the Daytona 500, it knocks the wind out of your sails.  Our season is 36 races and it’s a long road.  Fortunately, in all my years as a crew chief, I never missed the Daytona 500, so I cannot say exactly what it feels like to miss it.  I can’t imagine what it would be like after all that preparation and money spent and anticipation and when it’s all said and done Thursday after the Gatorade Duel, to have to load your truck and go home and watch the race on television Sunday. Unfortunately, some teams and probably some good teams will be in that boat.

Byrnes:  Typically the Gatorade Duel is the best racing of Speedweeks and now there are only a couple of starting slots left.  I can’t imagine how wild it will be for those guys Thursday.  It sounds cliché to say it’s going to be wild but there is a huge potential to tear up some race cars.  With the format change to lock in the top 35, there are fewer opportunities to make the field. Let’s face it – it pays $250,000 just to start the Daytona 500. 

The best part of the Gatorade Duel is the drama of locking in the field for the Daytona 500.  There’s so much excitement and emotion – good and bad.  There is so much on the line for these teams and the Duel can set the tone for the rest of their season.  If you’re one of the under-funded teams, just making the 500 is huge.  I remember the emotions of Mike Bliss last year when he didn’t make it in.  The emotions are so real and unique and different that day.

Krista Voda, host of the Gatorade Duel at Daytona:  The Gatorade Duel is almost a tale of two races.  You’ve got the guys out there who are locked in and those who are trying to get in.  For those locked in, starting position doesn’t really matter for the Daytona 500 and we saw that last year with Kevin Harvick’s come-from-behind victory.  These guys are trying to learn something for Sunday and keep their cars as clean as possible, especially since they want to run those cars Sunday.  The real story is the go-or-go-home guys.  Only four drivers, two in each Duel, will get the remaining spots so these guys are going for broke.  We already heard Boris Said say he’s going for broke or he’s basically bringing the car back in a box.  It’s really a tale of races because there are two completely different strategies.  I’ll be watching the go-or-go-home drivers because that is where the drama is.

Daytona is the first and biggest race of the year and it’s the 50th Daytona 500.  All these guys have put so much time in the off-season into this one race.  The fact that some of these guys will literally be watching the 500 from home Sunday is just devastating.  For instance, Sterling Marlin, who is a two-time Daytona 500 champion, could be watching the race just like the fans at home.  That’s so sad and that’s why there is so much drama on Thursday.  There is so much intensity attached to the Gatorade Duel that it’s going to be awesome.

Toyota struggled last year and no one thought they’d remain at the bottom of the ladder forever.  Do you think they are beginning to show what they are capable of?

McReynolds: I felt all along that Toyota wouldn’t be down for long and I said that many times last year.  Just look at what they tried to do with their entrance into the sport.  They came in last year and picked a terrible year to come into the sport.  They had to develop two different cars – the old Camry and the Car of Tomorrow Camry.  They had to develop a completely different engine package from what they were running in the Truck Series because it was not legal. They had to develop a restrictor plate engine because trucks have never raced restrictor plates and, oh, by the way, they did it with two brand-new race teams and a team that had kind of struggled for a couple or three years.  I know those Toyota people and I worked with them in 2004.  They are tenacious and they are not going to roll over and say, ‘time is going to make this better.’ Now everyone is going to say, ‘they added Joe Gibbs Racing and that certainly helped.’  There is no question that has helped but I definitely think even if they hadn’t added Gibbs, Toyota, Michael Waltrip Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Red Bull Racing were probably on the brink of getting better just because of time from last year.  Whether it’s the Hendrick dominance or Toyota, we’re not going to get all the answers here at Daytona because it’s a different animal.  We’re going to have to get to Fontana and Vegas and those places.  When we get through the next four races when we leave here, we’ll start having an idea of who’s who this year, even though we’ll just be scratching the surface of the schedule.

What did the teams learn about the COT in the Shootout?

McReynolds: I think there was certainly a lot of anticipation with the Car of Tomorrow even though we’ve tested it and raced it at Talladega last fall.  Everyone still knew it would be a different animal because Daytona is so different from Talladega, especially now that Talladega has been resurfaced.  I was anticipating the Car of Tomorrow this year with a huge question mark. But I’ve got to say what I saw and what I think we all learned in the Shootout is this is a darn good race car.  These cars can fall back, pull back and suck up well.  There was not a problem running two and three-wide like we’ve normally seen here at Daytona.  I think some guys learned there is a very fine line on the setup because you can’t be too aggressive with the right-front tire or you’ll get it in trouble.  You can’t get too aggressive with the air pressure or camber.  We saw that with Bill Elliott and we’ve seen some hints of it even in practice with JJ Yeley and the No. 96 car.  The biggest thing is these teams learned enough about this car and it’s a good race car and I think we’ll see some great racing Thursday in the Gatorade Duel at Daytona.

Hammond:  What I picked up on was how critical handling will be.  You may have to sacrifice a little bit of speed to keep the tires on this new car and keep it competitive.  There were a lot of drivers who were not in the Shootout, Kevin Harvick for instance, who were going to school on how those cars looked.  They watched how Tony made a pass, how Dale Jr. made a pass and which line was working best.  They also noticed when to go three-wide and when not to.  I think the Bud Shootout might have helped answer some questions and give direction better than it has in recent years.

Byrnes:  I think running the Shootout was an advantage but the other teams and drivers were watching.  We’ve learned it’s much more beneficial to go two-wide now, although I think you’ll see the occasional three-wide racing like we always see.  One thing they learned is you can race side-by-side, which is good, but don’t go crazy with it.  Another piece of information that came out of the Shootout is the closing rate is much different than the old car.  The rate at which they can pull up on another car is much faster now.  I think that’s an advantage to the guys who were in the Shootout.  There is a concern about the tires down here and the teams have learned they need to be a little more conservative with their setups and not put too much stress on the tires.  Dale Jarrett said on Trackside that the cars bounce around side-to-side a lot and the back end of the car wants to be a little loose.  I think they’re all getting used to how the car drives more each day.

If you were NASCAR, would you penalize Kurt Busch or Tony Stewart following Saturday night’s incident?

McReynolds:  If I were NASCAR, the only thing I would be double-thinking is the beating and banging coming all the way down pit road.  As far as what happened on the race track, it was a practice accident.  Were all of those guys pushing the envelope too hard for practice? Absolutely.  The only thing I question, and I have been an advocate of this for years as a crew chief and now as a broadcaster, is using the race car for retaliation.  If I was NASCAR and want to make a statement that I’m going to let these guys show their emotions, since no one got hurt and the cars had substantial damage already, I’d probably go ahead and let it ride.  But I’d keep a very close watch on both of them throughout Speedweeks especially.

I’d much rather see that emotion or even retaliation outside the race car.  That’s what I said on SPEED’s qualifying broadcast Friday night.  If you want to get out and want to confront a driver, scream and yell at him or push him, that’s fine.  That emotion and passion is what we’ve got to bring back to the sport.  These guys knowing they can show those emotions will help get this sport back in order.  If they curse on air or pick up jacks or airguns and go after each other, that’s a different story.  We need to keep that line in the sand.

I can almost hear Mike Helton say this ... NASCAR still has to control the sport.  Even though we’re trying to let the emotion back in, we still need to control the sport and NASCAR does that.  I think the only thing NASCAR is struggling with is that Kurt took a race car and retaliated with it.  They are probably thinking they really need to step in and make a statement, ‘hey, show your emotions but leave these 3,400 pound race cars out of the equation.’

NASCAR announced they are putting Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch on probation for six races.  Do you think that is the right call?

Hammond: I think that is the right call.  Under the circumstances and the way this played out, I think NASCAR is being fair in its assessment and the penalty.  Not in recent times have we seen an incident like this go through what a lot of people will say is no punishment at all without some sort of points penalty.  I like the way they’re trying to start out.  Mike Helton and Brian France are letting these guys feel like they can race each other and show some emotion within reason but they still control the sport and have the final say-so.  From what I’ve been told, Kurt hit Tony on the race track and Tony got him back in the NASCAR trailer so everything is even.  I think everything is very fair and I hope this is a sign of new times for NASCAR and one that will be rewarded and not over-abused by the competitors themselves.

The Kurt Busch/Tony Stewart incident drew a lot of publicity … do you think that is beneficial for the sport?

Byrnes:  We couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2008 season.  We went in with a lot of apprehension about this new race car but things have gotten off to a bang.  NASCAR said they were going to let the drivers show more personality and from what I hear, there was some sort of confrontation in the NASCAR hauler between Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.  But I think NASCAR is letting Tony and Kurt settle it the way they need to and that’s a good sign. I personally wouldn’t fine those guys but I don’t condone Kurt using his car for retaliation on pit road.  I still think NASCAR will give the guys a bit of a grace period.  I am a bit ‘old school’ because I’ve been working in NASCAR for more than 20 years.  It is an emotional sport and I think that’s great.  The fans want to know these guys care about racing and aren’t just pampered millionaires who get on their jets and fly out.  Also, Dale Jr. winning the Shootout was great for the sport and we’re off to a terrific start.

What can the fans expect from SPEED in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel at Daytona?

Voda:  The fans can expect SPEED to deliver all the emotion of the day.  There is so much bottled up in these guys and our job as broadcasters is to paint that picture and deliver it to the fans at home.  We take that bottled-up emotion, put a bow on it and deliver it right to the living room.  Our hope and expectation is to spell out all the drama that is unfolding right in front of us … on the track and in the garage, the guys walking from their motor homes to pit road with their shoulders all tensed up.  We’ve got the best in the business from the guys behind the camera to the guys in the truck punching the buttons.  If we can deliver that into people’s living rooms Thursday, then we’ve done our job. 

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