DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 25: James Buescher, driver of the #30 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series DRIVE4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway on February 25, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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New to NASCAR? Maybe just want to refresh yourself on some of the storylines leading into Sunday's Daytona 500? Here are a few notes of interest to give you an idea of what to watch for in the Great American Race.
How unpredictable is the Daytona 500? In the last 10 years, there have been 10 different winners.
While you would think we might see someone end that streak, the wide-open nature of restrictor-plate racing means an out-of-nowhere winner is very much a possibility.
A year ago, there was no one who foresaw Trevor Bayne – in just his second series start – taking the Wood Brothers to Victory Lane. But, lo and behold, that is exactly what happened.
So don't be shocked if someone like David Ragan or even Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is celebrating a win on Sunday night.
Whether it was after the 187.5-mile Budweiser Shootout or the 150-mile Gatorade Duel races, all week long the talk in the garage has been about the difficulty of keeping the engines cool and running to their full capacity – and that was in far shorter races than today's 500-mile affair.
So you can imagine the concern up and down pit road regarding a possible rash of engine failures. As such, look for teams today to put an even greater emphasis on managing their engine temperatures as best as possible.
The winless streak on which Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself heading into the year is currently 129 races and counting. But today, with the return of the pack-style racing that plays to his strengths, Earnhardt Jr. has an excellent chance to return to Victory Lane for the first time since Father's Day 2008.
If he can do so, it would be his second 500 victory and the seventh for car owner Rick Hendrick, which would also mark Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win.
The only woman to ever have won an IndyCar race will officially make her Sprint Cup Series debut today in the sport's marquee event. With Danica Patrick's fulltime arrival, Danica Mania has officially taken over NASCAR.
While expectations on the Sprint Cup side of things have been tempered, she has shown in limited Nationwide Series starts that she does have a good understanding of how to run in the draft. Whether that carries over to today remains to be seen.
There are quite a few prominent names still looking for their first victory in the Daytona 500. Chief among them is Tony Stewart, who has 17 wins in various events on the 2.5-mile track – yet none in the biggest race of them all. Other big names also looking for their first 500 win include Carl Edwards – who will lead the field to the green – Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and the outside polesitter, Greg Biffle.
Anytime the series races at Daytona or Talladega, the primary goal among drivers is not to get caught up in one of the frequent multi-car accidents which are a common occurrence anytime the series runs on a restrictor-plate track. These accidents referred to as "The Big One," can happen at time and certainly will play a large role in determining who is around at the end, challenging for the win.
Look for drivers to try a variety of strategies in an effort to avoid getting swept-up in "The Big One," including some drivers lagging behind the large pack and waiting until the closing laps to make their move forward.
• Seven drivers – Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope, Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne – all scored their first Sprint Cup Series win in the Daytona 500.
• Dale Jarrett was not only the last driver to win the 500 from the pole; he was also the last driver to win the Budweiser Shootout and the 500 in the same year. Both feats occurred in 2000.
• Danica Patrick, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Gilliland all will be starting at the back of the field after being forced to backup cars following accidents in their respective qualifying races.
• Today's field will consist of seven former Daytona 500 winners. They are: Jamie McMurray (2010), Matt Kenseth (2009), Bayne (2011), Jeff Gordon (1997, '99, '05), Kevin Harvick (2007), Ryan Newman (2008), Jimmie Johnson (2006) and Earnhardt Jr. (2004).
• If Trevor Bayne can repeat his win of a year ago, he will join Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) as the only drivers to win consecutive Daytona 500s.
• Three drivers – Patrick, Stenhouse and Landon Cassill – all will be making their first start in "The Great American Race."
1. Tony Stewart
As noted above, this is a hard race to peg one driver as the definitive favorite. But if you had to pick one person to win, it would have to be Tony Stewart. With a runner-up finish in the Shootout and a win in his Thursday qualifying race, it's obvious the offseason hasn't cooled off the guy who steamrolled to his third Sprint Cup championship just three months ago
2. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth's name isn't one that's usually mentioned when looking for a potential winner at either Daytona race. But let's not forget, the '03 series champion has won this race before (2009), won his Gatorade Duel race Thursday, has the patience needed to weave his way through the numerous accidents which will surely occur and is driving for the team who has had fast cars throughout Speedweeks.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ignore the fact NASCAR's most popular driver hasn't won a race in three-and-a-half years. Instead, focus on the fact Earnhardt Jr. has found his confidence, excels at restrictor-plate racing and has been fast all week.
In a race where realistically anything can and will likely happen, it's not easy tabbing one driver to pull out a surprisingly good finish – and maybe a win. That said, although he might not technically qualify as a "sleeper," my pick is Regan Smith.
The driver for the single-car Furniture Row Racing team will have the same powerful engine in his car as Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray will have in theirs. As he demonstrated in last year's Daytona 500, when he ran with the leaders all afternoon and left with a seventh-place finish, Smith knows the fast way to get around Daytona.