Race Day Thoughts: The Daytona 500

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News, Notes and Predictions for the Daytona 500

News, Notes and Predictions for the Daytona 500

by Matt Taliaferro

The forecast isn’t great for today’s Daytona 500, with rain expected in the Daytona Beach, Fla., area, but hopefully at 1:29 pm EST the green flag will fly over NASCAR’s Great American Race as scheduled — and the race will be run the scheduled distance.

In the meantime, some thoughts, notes and predictions on race day morn.

Update: Due to rain, the Daytona 500 has been postponed to Monday. NASCAR president Mike Helton says the sanctioning body is planning for a 7:00 pm EST start time. The race will air live on FOX. 

 

A Bunch of Big Ones
Friday’s Camping World Trucks Series and Saturday’s Nationwide Series races were marred by late-race accidents. An odd hybrid of tandem and pack drafting — particularly at the end of the events — has given way to a scrap metal salesman’s dream. In each race, virtual unknowns (or at least outgunned underdogs) in John King and James Buescher have come out of nowhere for unlikely wins.

Thus, the question is whether the closing laps of the Cup Series’ 500 will resemble either of the previous two events. My feeling is that it will not be anywhere near as messy. The Truck Series field has a much more diverse mix of youth and experience, lending some to take actions that are over their heads. The Nationwide pack, by race’s end, was comprised mostly of Cup Series cherry-pickers who had nothing to lose by laying it all on the line. Bring me the steering wheel or the trophy, as the saying goes.

Expect an elevated level of skill and decision-making out of the Cup drivers — even when the pressure gets racheted up with 10 laps to go. And keep in mind that if the 500 is cut short due to rain, the drivers and teams may not even know that they’re in the final 10 laps.

It’ll get crazy, no doubt, but we’ve seen the most destructive finishes Speedweeks has to offer already.

Speaking of Unlikely Winners …
… Can Danica Patrick actually pull the upset and win in her first Daytona 500 start? The honest answer is yes, she could (see: Trevor Bayne, 2011), but she will not.

Bayne’s monumental upset last season came in a different form of Daytona drafting. Tandem drafting and pack racing are two very different animals. Patrick has yet to show she is 100 percent comfortable in the giant pack (or in yesterday’s tandem/pack hybrid). There remains a level of timidity she has shown that will make her odds long to even finish the 500, much less be in the right place at the right time as the laps wind down to be in a position to win.

There’s no doubt she’ll have plenty of help on Daytona’s 2.5-mile track throughout the day, but when it’s “go time,” the experienced drivers she’ll be looking to for help (Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) will be looking out for No. 1. That may leave Patrick sinking, not surging, through the field.

Engine Concerns
Water and oil temperatures have kept engine builders tossing and turning late into the night at Daytona since January’s test sessions. The Fords, with their FR-9 powerplants, have run cooler than any other make, and that has to play to their favor. However, staying up front and in clean air will alleviate this problem regardless of manufacturer. That, of course, is easier said than done.

NASCAR has allowed teams to change the PSI on the radiator pressure release valve from 25 psi to 28 psi. That will help with cooling, but water was seen spewing from overflow valves in the Duels — and those were only 150-mile affairs. A 500-mile race will eventually take its toll. Expect some big names to battle this all afternoon, and some to fall victim to overheating.

The Favorites
Unquestionably, Tony Stewart. Smoke lost the Bud Shootout by inches last weekend, won his Duel race on Thursday and most likely would have won the Nationwide race had Kurt Busch not thrown an ill-advised block that decimated the lead pack.

Stewart has a swagger this season, carried over from last year’s Chase performance and a handful of non-NASCAR wins over the offseason. He earned his 17th career Daytona win on Thursday, though none have come in the 500. It’s his 14th start in NASCAR’s Super Bowl and he’s driving the No. 14 Chevy. Hey, it worked for Darrell Waltrip in 1989.

Roush teammates Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have all shown plenty of speed over the last week. Kenseth won a Thursday Duel, Biffle has consistently been near the top of the pylon in practice sessions and Edwards is the pole-sitter.

At least one of these Roushkateers should find himself in contention by race’s end. And the smart money here goes on Kenseth — although Edwards has been as quietly fast and under-the-radar as any pole-sitter I can remember. Edwards also has the advantage of occupying pit stall No. 1, meaning he has clear track ahead when exiting pit road.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is looking to snap a 129-race winless skid in the Cup Series. He’s made no secret that he prefers pack racing to tandem drafts, and the feeling (whether real or imagined) that he controls his own destiny may be the edge he needs.

Like Edwards, Kevin Harvick has been quietly fast throughout Speedweeks. Harvick would just as soon lay low until it’s time to show his cards, and that’s exactly what he’s done thus far. Harvick is a pied-piper of sorts on the plate tracks, and that should be the case once again today.

The Darhorses
Joey Logano, himself mired in an ugly winless skid, has shown speed and savvy all week and his Joe Gibbs Racing mount will be good enough to win on Sunday (or Monday, or Tuesday). He’ll have to stay out of trouble, though. But that can be said for 42 other drivers, as well.

Marcos Ambrose has third-place showings in the Shootout and his Duel race in 2012. Not known as a plate master, Ambrose’s two Speedweek runs have come in lighter fields than the 500’s 43-car lineup. So while the career numbers may not back up the claim, Ambrose remains a darkhorse — and the fact he’s manning a Ford, and the Fords have not shown the tendency to overheat as other makes have — place him as a sneaky fantasy roster play.

Since the “unlikely youngster coming out of nowhere” theme has persisted through the weekend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gets a shout-out here. The defending Nationwide Series champion will drive a powerful Roush Fenway Ford, so the equipment is there. He’ll also have plenty of on-track assistance, as he claims Biffle, Edwards, Kenseth and Trevor Bayne (among others) as blue-oval buddies in the draft.

And in the End…
My pick is Tony Stewart. That’s hardly going out on a limb, but as stated previously, he has a potent mix of swagger, speed and savvy. And make no mistake, the rest of the field knows it. Anyone, regardless of manufacturer loyalty, will be more than willing to align themselves with the three-time champion throughout the day — and especially when it’s money time.

Stewart has learned where he needs to be on the race’s final lap — the hunter, not the hunted — and will parlay that into his first Daytona 500 crown.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
 

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<p> Matt Taliaferro contemplates what's to come in Sunday's Daytona 500.</p>
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