Daytona 500: The Sprint to the Chase

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By: Melissa S. Wollering

It sounds like an oxymoron, but the Sprint Cup is only won after a grueling  nine month racing schedule–Sunday in, Sunday out–until the 12 top point scorers battle it out in The Chase.

For the last three seasons, Jimmie Johnson has driven 26-week marathons and then sprinted to the Championship. Many of the rule changes discussed in last week’s NASCAR season preview certainly seem to be crafted to slow Johnson down and even-out the racing field. However, he’s certainly a contender for this weekend’s crowning jewel–the World Series or Superbowl of racing–the Daytona 500.

The names of the men who have never visited Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 might surprise you.  Mark Martin is 0 for 25 but has secured the pole this year.  Bobby Labonte is 0 for 17.

Other drivers who have a chance at taking the checkered flag in Florida and perhaps the strength to make it into The Chase:

Tony Stewart.  Who also happens to be 0 and 11 at Daytona. Becoming an owner and driver in 2009 really changed Tony.  And whether you love him or hate him, you realize it’s only a matter of time before he tells your favorite driver to eat his dust.

Jeff Gordon.  He starts the season off strong EVERY season.  Don’t underestimate his ability to win Daytona AGAIN. It would be his fourth!

Casey Kahne.  He’s young but he’s learned enough not to treat the oval with a rookie mindset.  He’s making smart, calculated moves and I believe he’ll be a contender in the points this year in a major way.

The Busch Brothers.  You love to HATE them, possibly more than Tony Stewart. One of them just got engaged last week to a chick who probably put Julia Roberts up as her Doppelganger on Facebook two weeks ago. Yeah, that’d make you lucky, too. If I had to choose between the two brothers, my money would be on Kyle this week.

Joey Lagano.  He’s not a Sprint Cup contender persay, but he’s coming off a red-hot 2009 rookie season and he will consistently improve if he can keep his 19-year-0ld brain focused on the road ahead.

Kevin Harvick.  Won his second back-to-back Budweiser shootout last Saturday. He consistently races in the top ten and could use that consistency to make it to the front of the pack at the end of the 500 laps Sunday and finish the season strong, too.

Predicted Winner: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  Ran a fantastic time trial for the Daytona last Saturday, is a pole setter and will likely set the pace of the race and if he can stay out of trouble in the corners. Note, this is a huge gamble for me because I think he’s raced terribly in the past two seasons, but that means this guy is due for a decent season in 2010. Funny enough, he has also been helping Danica Patrick in the offseason.  And there’s nothing like teaching to reinvigorate yourself and your own racing discipline.  Speaking of, Danica Patrick makes her NASCAR debut in the Nationwide Series Race today for JR Motorsports. 

In other feel good news, Michael Waltrip had planned to make his final start at Daytona this weekend but wrecked out of the first race (used to qualify for the 500). He needed to rely on the finishing order of the second race to secure a spot at all for Sunday. Luckily, Scott Speed grabbed a “transfer spot” so his teammate Waltrip can say goodbye to racing in style.

Join me each week as I break down the top contenders and analyze their strength for the race at hand as well as their chances for The Chase!

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