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Daytona 500 Preview and Fantasy NASCAR Predictions

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The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup season officially starts its engines with the 58th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday. NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 is the biggest event of the 36-race season that concludes with the Chase. So what lies in store when all eyes will be on Daytona International Speedway come Sunday?

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2016 Daytona 500

Time: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)

TV: FOX

Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90

Who’s Up Front

Chase Elliott. Jeff Gordon’s replacement and the son of “Million Dollar” Bill Elliott pulled a little NASCAR magic of his own Sunday, taking the pole in his first drive inside the iconic No. 24. With Gordon now calling Sprint Cup action from the FOX booth he saw Elliott, just 20 years old, become the youngest pole winner in Daytona 500 history.

It was the perfect transition for the No. 24 team, earning the pole for a second straight season, and now the question is whether Elliott can hit the ground running like Gordon. By age 23, Gordon was a race winner; age 24, he was a champion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; it’s Elliott’s first week and 200 laps at Daytona are far different than just one. Elliott got shuffled out of line several times in his qualifying Duel race as a form of “rookie hazing” – veterans get scared to draft with newbies – and will need to earn the faith of others to pull the ultimate upset. Heck, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. said to Elliott prerace he wouldn’t work with him, telling his teammate this rules package is one where “you look out for just you.” Only problem is, that’s not entirely true; everywhere you looked Thursday night cars were working together to find ways to get to the front. Can Elliott find some friends when it counts on Sunday?

Who’s at the Back

Robert Richardson Jr., Daytona’s 2016 underdog story, who felt like he “won the lottery.” This man was literally baling hay on a ranch two weeks ago, long retired from NASCAR competition (his last race in any of the top three series was 2014) when he got a call from Stalk It, a company that repurposes materials for boarding that wanted to test the waters in NASCAR through the Daytona 500. Calls were made, BK Racing owner Ron Devine offered a spot on his team and the one-race deal paid off when Richardson slipped into the race through qualifying speed.

“The stress that I’ve been putting just on myself in general to make this race, I’ve been pacing the floor [every morning],” he said. “I’m still in awe that this happened.”

So are observers who have seen this small-time team struggle through the years. Maybe NASCAR’s new charter system, guaranteeing organizations like this one extra cash and more financial parity is already paying off? BK’s two “locked in” cars ran well and its two other entries that needed to race into the Daytona 500 did so.

Who’s Making News

The restrictor plate rules package, one of the few things unchanged in a sea of 2016 NASCAR evolution. It’s produced a fairly quiet Speedweeks with expected results; a Demolition Derby in the Sprint Unlimited Saturday night, then Duel races that went single-file for much of Thursday as teams were worried about preserving equipment.

“It's such a tough balance because you got to go out there and try to win, but you can't tear up your car,” Earnhardt said. “You got to race like tearing up the car don't matter. It's really crossing your fingers and hoping you get to the finish with the car in one piece.”

The new charter rules, locking 36 of the cars into the field, made for less stress throughout the garage during Speedweeks. But stability also made for less drama and less, well news leading into what should be NASCAR’s Super Bowl. Crowds Thursday were up for the qualifying race and Sunday’s race is sold out. But that’s only half the battle as ratings on TV started off down 20 percent. It will be interesting to see if the buzz from the renovated track, upping the fan experience through NASCAR’s Daytona Rising project, is enough to carry over elsewhere with the racing action about a C/C+ so far.

Joe Gibbs Racing still appears at the top of their game three months after winning the championship with Kyle Busch. Busch has won a qualifying race, teammate Denny Hamlin took the exhibition Sprint Unlimited (the third of his career) and Matt Kenseth qualified on the front row. Daytona is a bit of an outlier with restrictor plates as the new 2016 rules package doesn’t start in earnest until Atlanta next week. But the four-car team is clearly out to make a statement nothing has changed.

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Young guns are making their presence known quickly in what’s shaping up to be a transition year for the sport. It’s the first Daytona 500 since 1992 without Gordon; it’s the first since 1998 without Tony Stewart. Losing two iconic names has impact but Elliott won the pole, fellow rookie Ryan Blaney was top 5 in his qualifying race, despite pitting off sequence for a vibration, and Kyle Larson, who many expect to have a breakout season in his third year on the Cup circuit, starts a strong 14th. Will this be the year we start seeing fresh faces in contention? Only one twentysomething made the 16-driver Chase last season, an alarming sign as NASCAR looks to evolve into a new subset of superstars that will attract an 18-to-34 age group that’s increasingly indifferent toward them.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

His track record at Daytona recently has been impeccable. A win in the 2014 Daytona 500, a third-place finish last year, two straight wins in the Duel qualifying races, plus a July race win here. This plate package seems to work to his strengths, a quality learned from his father and Earnhardt’s one of the few that knows how to make a long-range run on the leader without being blocked. You never know when wrecks will ruin a good streak – Daytona and Talladega are a form of Russian Roulette for all drivers with the “Big One” lurking around every turn – but he’s as safe a top-5 bet as you’re going to get.

Middle Tier

Casey Mears

Barely inside NASCAR’s “middle class” Mears, who drives for single-car team Germain Racing, has had just four top 10s the last two seasons. Half of those have come inside Daytona International Speedway. Finishing 10th in 2014 and sixth last year, he was in position to challenge for a victory Thursday in his Duel qualifying race before running out of gas. The No. 13 team knows its chances to win are limited to a handful of tracks; which is why it puts extra emphasis on this race. Easily a low-cash buy, Mears could pay off for you on Sunday.

Jamie McMurray

The 2010 Daytona 500 winner is usually at his best at plate tracks. Starting sixth, the No. 1 Chevy will be close to the front and was a favorite drafting partner of many in the field. It’s best to use him here than waste a start on an intermediate down the road, the type of track where Chip Ganassi’s two cars struggled mightily at times in 2015.

Lower Tier

Ty Dillon

Only running a limited schedule in the Cup Series this year, the younger Dillon showed well in his Duel, placing sixth for small-time Leavine Family Racing. There’s a sense of urgency in his camp, as grandfather Richard Childress is lobbying for Dillon to replace an injured Tony Stewart for some races in the No. 14 car down the road, a top-tier ride where the youngster can get some much-needed experience. Having a top-15 performance in the 500 certainly helps that cause and Dillon, mature for his age knows how to bring it home in one piece.

Related: 60 Funny Fantasy NASCAR Team Names for 2016

What Vegas Thinks

As of Friday Earnhardt is getting top billing, posting 5/1 odds with Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson close behind at 8/1. Earnhardt won his Duel, of course while Johnson had to go to a backup when a mistimed block up front left the No. 48 spinning into a pack of cars. Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona winner, sits at 8/1 while defending Daytona champ Joey Logano is at 10/1. If you’re looking for a longshot, the aforementioned Mears is going at 80/1.

Conventional buzz from insiders also says Earnhardt has the fastest car, a virtual tie with the No. 11 of Denny Hamlin, who won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited Saturday night. Earnhardt says “his car is awesome,” has three victories at this track already and told owner Rick Hendrick it needs to go in a museum. Now that’s confidence. Hamlin, for his part, has sniffed victory at the 500 in recent years and won the Unlimited with a car wrapped in duct tape after getting banged around.

What I Think

Kyle Busch entered the media center Thursday night as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him, literally introducing himself as the winner of his Duel qualifying race before NASCAR media people could even get to the podium. Drawing laughs and going in-depth with reporters it’s clear the miracle comeback that peaked with 2015’s championship has produced a totally different guy.

It’s also the attitude you need to win Daytona. Busch is 0-for-a-decade in the sport’s biggest race and has the horsepower and handling of Joe Gibbs Racing at his back. Busch feels the track doesn’t owe him after last year’s debilitating crash that took him out of the sport for three months; well, I do. Karma will come back around and Busch takes home the first Daytona 500 trophy for JGR since 1993.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photos by ASP Inc.)