A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.
Kevin Harvick has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. But he hasn’t been the week’s big story. Danica Patrick cornered the publicity market on Sunday, when she won the pole for the 500 and became the talk of American motorsports — or more accurately, the face that NASCAR’s marketing machine has been all-too-happy to advertise to the public.
“Can I win? Yeah, absolutely,” Patrick proclaimed. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation; I feel comfortable in the draft; speeds are not a problem.”
A bold statement indeed, if not a bit naïve.
Danica was not just a big story for nearly five days, she was the story, as rash claims and inflated tails of hope ran amok, the sport bathing itself in Danica-mania.
That said, it was only after Patrick was assured of the point that FOX sold out its commercial space for the 500, so from a financial standpoint at least, the hype is warranted.
The adoration tempered a bit on Thursday, when the Budweiser Duels set the field for Sunday’s race. Actual cars on the track, actual competition, and actual winners gave all a much-needed change of focus.
Meanwhile, traditional heavy-hitters have skirted under the radar, seemingly content to let a hungry media focus on the week’s trendy topic while they go about the business of figuring out a new car. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been as invisible as Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin … nary a word. It took Brad Keselowski giving what NASCAR deemed a “we need to talk, son” interview with USA Today to get the defending champ some serious pub.
With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the engines fire at 1:19 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the prior week, the pomp and circumstance of a marketing-driven sport, will fall prey to the reality of performance.
The aforementioned Harvick has a sterling record thus far in 2013, though points aren’t paid until Sunday. Harvick has been the pied piper of the low groove that most have been unwilling (or unable) to utilize. He has dexterously maneuvered through the field on two occasions, finding the point and holding off all comers.
“I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car,” Harvick said after his Duel triumph. “Gil (Martin, crew chief) and I talked about what we thought we needed coming down here after the (January) test, went a particular direction. It's worked out for us.”
Don’t be misled — Harvick’s deftness in the draft has worked to his advantage, as well. And should again on Sunday. However, no driver has come to Daytona and pulled the trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 in the same season. But this team seems primed.
“You're going to have multiple pit stops and you're going to have to change fours tires at some particular point,” Harvick says. “You're going to see the field get mixed up because people are going to be on varying strategies.
Despite Harvick’s excellence, no driver is a more popular pick for Sunday than Tony Stewart.
Confident to the point that he sat out Happy Hour on Saturday, Stewart has displayed a calm swagger throughout Speedweeks even though he has yet to finish among the top 3 in … well, anything.
Still, his Stewart-Haas Racing team appear ahead of the curve with the new car, showing impressive speed. And apparently he’s found the feel.
“I’m really happy with my car,” Stewart said after Saturday’s second practice session. “I got out and looked at Steve Addington (crew chief) and he’s like, ‘I’m content if you are.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what else to ask for with the car.’
“It’s a good scenario — there’s not a scratch on it and it’s ready to race. It’s a position that I don’t know we’ve ever been in — I think we’ve always run final practice.”
Shut out in 14 attempts in the Daytona 500, Stewart hasn’t quite reached a Dale Earnhardt-esque frustration level, but at the moment, this race tops his career bucketlist.
The pieces are in place for a win, but the 500 is wrought with pitfalls.
Kenseth makes any list of favorites on his 2012 plate brilliance alone. The winner of two of the last four 500s, Joe Gibbs Racing’s heir to the coveted No. 20 averaged a 2.0-place finish on the plate tracks last season.
The Wisconsin native was racy in the Unlimited, leading 26 laps, and was running second late in his Duel before being shuffled to fifth at the finish. Kenseth’s big problem throughout Speedweeks hasn’t been speed or handling, but a lack of dancing partners. One would think with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch serving as teammates, he’d have plenty of help. But more often than not, he’s been the man overtaken with a lack of help than the driver doing the passing when the money’s been on the line.
Like Stewart, Kenseth passed on Happy Hour, which speaks to the strength and confidence of his bunch. Ever the silent assassin, this is the guy who could very well spoil Harvick’s and Stewart’s fun.