Pennell’s Picks: Fantasy NASCAR Trends at Daytona

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Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Daytona 500.

by Jay Pennell

Sunday’s running of the 54th annual Daytona 500 begins the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it also marks the beginning of the 2012 NASCAR fantasy racing season. Fans across the land will be preparing their teams week-in and week-out, hoping to celebrate with a championship of their own at season’s end.

As the 2012 fantasy racing season gets underway, I wish you the best of luck. I will attempt to bring you the best advice and updates on a weekly basis throughout the year, providing information that will help you determine which drivers to start, which to avoid and which to keep an eye on.

With the rule changes put in place by NASCAR during the offseason and throughout Speedweeks, the “pack is back” at Daytona. No longer will drivers rely on another car for the entirety of the 500-mile event, instead they will be more in control of their destiny to work their way through the giant, 30-car snarling packs, akin to the “traditional” restrictor-plate races that have drawn some fans’ ire, yet always deliver on excitement.

This is a change for many that have become accustomed to tandem racing on the plate tracks, but is a welcomed sight to this week’s fantasy favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 2004 Daytona 500 champion has not enjoyed the same success during the tandem drafting era of restrictor-plate racing as he did in the “pack racing years,” when he won a total of seven points-paying races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.

Earnhardt admits that he “never felt really great about” about the tandems, and that was never more evident than in last October’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, when he and teammate Jimmie Johnson hung around the back of the pack until the end. By the time the two attempted to make their charge, it was too late. Earnhardt finished 25th that day and vowed to never use that strategy again.

However, with pack racing back, Earnhardt says he feels “more confident” and has a better ability to formulate a plan to get to the front at the end. Expect the perennial fan-favorite to dice it up in the pack throughout the entire race (see: the 2010 Daytona 500) and be a factor in the final laps.

“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said earlier this week. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I don’t waste a minute of the day doing that.”

While Earnhardt may be the favorite for Sunday’s win, my safe-bet pick for the week is 2009 Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver was strong throughout Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout, coming back into contention after sustaining damage in an early-race incident. In addition to his calm, cool and collected driving style, Kenseth also has the advantage of Ford power under the hood of his No. 17 car.

Throughout Speedweeks, the Fords have once again shown they are able to stay cooler longer while tucked behind another car in the tandem draft. And while pack racing will rule 95 percent of the day at Daytona, the final laps of Sunday’s race will see drivers pairing up in pairs once again, throwing caution — and water temperatures — to the wind in an attempt to drive to the win.

When drivers partner up at the finish, expect Kenseth to be among those at the front with a bevy of teammates (and quasi-teammates) — think Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Gilliland — from which to choose.

My dark horse pick of the week is Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano. While the 21-year-old has had a poor record in the Daytona 500 in his first three attempts (average finish: 28.6) , I feel the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota will be a factor throughout the day.

Before being involved in one of the three “Big Ones” in the Bud Shootout, Logano was among the strongest cars in the field. Despite his relative inexperience with pack racing, he looked at ease in the middle of the pack and had the ability to move to the front. And his teammates’ seeming unwillingness to work with one another — when was the last time Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch actually assisted one another on-track? — means Logano will serve as the perfect dancing partner.

In addition, Logano enters his first year without veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who moved to Stewart-Haas Racing during the offseason. While the loss of a two-time, championship-winning crew chief would seem detrimental to most teams, it may by the opposite for Logano. For the first time in his young career, he truly feels the team is his own. With Zipadelli calling the shots up until now, Logano was living in the shadow (and accomplishments) of former driver Tony Stewart. Now that Zipadelli has moved on, Logano, believe it or not, is the leader of his own team. And JGR’s veteran Nationwide Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, should fill the vacated head wrench role nicely.

While he may not win his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, I fully expect Logano to score a solid finish — and provide ample fantasy points.

Momentum is a powerful thing in NASCAR, and as the season goes on I wish you all the best of luck. I encourage your feedback and comments, and apologize in advance if my observations do not pan out (a timely “Big One” can easily knock out an entire fantasy roster). If I could predict the future, I think I’d live in Las Vegas and be a lot richer …

Here’s to a great 2012 season for NASCAR, the competitors, and the fantasy racing participants.

Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayPennell

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<p> Athlon Sports contributor Jay Pennell examines favorites, steady plays and dark horse picks for your fantasy NASCAR team as the season opens with the Daytona 500.</p>
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