The return trip to Daytona International Speedway for the annual Independence Day weekend race is sure to produce its own fireworks. Restrictor-plate racing creates packs of cars running close together which can trigger the infamous "Big One" at any moment. Bump drafting is another element that causes the running order to be constantly changing. Pairing up with a good pusher is key to getting up front. Two cars running nose-to-tail can create a draft and surge through the field. Losing the draft will often send a car shuffling backwards to the rear of the pack.
Given how tight the standings are heading into Saturday night's race, those on the outside of the Chase looking in could be desperate enough to force the issue, likely for the worse. Fantasy owners should look for consistency in a driver's loop data at Daytona when making selections. Wrecks and poor finishes due to late-race damage can mask an otherwise solid option for a restrictor-plate race.
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Length: 2.5 miles
Turns 1-4: 31 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 3 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Kyle Busch | No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Take a chance on Kyle Busch
In a span of five starts prior to 2009, Busch had only one finish worse than fourth at Daytona, including a win and two runner-up finishes. It's the finishes since then that may cause some to overlook the younger Busch brother. In last year's Daytona 500, Busch was collected in a late wreck shortly after restarting third and leading 88 laps. In the summer race, Busch would have likely finished second had he not thrown an aggressive block at Tony Stewart, who spun Busch out leaving him with a 14th-place finish. Despite those spoiled efforts, Busch has outstanding loop data at Daytona that cannot be ignored. Among active drivers, Busch ranks second in average driver rating (100.6) and average running position (10.9). Busch had led at least one lap in seven straight races at Daytona.
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Burger King Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
While Stewart struggled in this year's Daytona 500, he was running with the leaders during the early stages of that race, and Smoke is starting to turn his season around in a big way. After a six-race stretch of finishes outside the top-15, Stewart has finished 15th or better in his last six starts, including five top-10s and three top-fives. While Stewart has needed some pit strategy and good fortune to put that run together, Daytona has been a site Stewart routinely competes at. Last year, he finished eighth in the season opener and led 15 laps. Stewart came back in the summer to win for the third time at Daytona during the Independence Day weekend. For his career, Stewart owns the best average driver rating (104.5) at the site and holds the third best average running position (12.2). Stewart is known for his summer surge; don't skip out on Smoke.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard "8 Soldiers 8 Missions"/Amp Energy Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
It's been a tale of two Juniors at Daytona while riding in a Hendrick car. Upon joining the organization in 2008, Earnhardt finished eighth and ninth at the site while spending a combined 98.9 percent of his laps running in the top-15 between the two events. Earnhardt also led 12 laps in the Daytona 500 and 51 laps in the summer race. Last year in February, Earnhardt made two unforced errors on pit road before getting damaged by an aggressive block from Brian Vickers. In the summer, Earnhardt was collected in an early wreck after struggling with the handling of the car. In this year's Daytona 500, Earnhardt held an average running position of 14th, but surged in the closing laps to finish as the runner-up, his first top-five at the site since 2005. Earnhardt is among the top restrictor-plate racers around and actively seeks out other drivers to hook up with in order to make a two-car push to the front.
Clint Bowyer | No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Statistically speaking, Bowyer had his best run ever at Daytona earlier this season. In the Great American Race, Bowyer tied a career-best with a four-place finish, but his 95.7 percent of laps in the top 15 were by far the most he has compiled at Daytona. Bowyer's average running position of sixth was also a personal best and the second-best among all drivers in the race. Bowyer's other top-five at Daytona came in last year's summer race with an average running position of 17th. In nine career starts at Daytona, Bowyer owns an average finish of 12.3, tops among active drivers. Bowyer has yet to suffer a DNF at Daytona and will need that streak to continue in order to get back into the Chase picture.
Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
To put it simply, no one has been better than McMurray in the last three restrictor-plate races. McMurray won last year's fall race at Talladega despite an average running position of 20th. However, McMurray led the most laps (32) en route to victory. To open the 2010 season, McMurray only led two laps during his win in the Daytona 500, posting an average running position of 11th. In the spring race at Talladega, McMurray was second in laps led (27) and would finish as the runner-up with an average running position of only 22nd. McMurray has been getting it done in restrictor-plate races lately by playing it very conservatively. In all three of these races, McMurray has been running in the same position in which he started or worse at the midway point. By avoiding the early race drama, McMurray keeps putting himself to challenge for wins at the end.
Temper your expectations
Jeff Gordon | No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Avoid Jeff Gordon this week
With six wins at Daytona, Gordon leads all active drivers in victories at the site. However, his last top-five and top-10 finishes at Daytona both came back in 2007. Since then, Gordon's best finish is only 13th, in addition to four finishes of 26th of worse. Gordon has still managed to lead at least one lap in each of those races and has held very respectable average running positions, ranging from seventh to 20th. In addition, Gordon has been running fourth or better at the midway point of the race in four of those five races. The issues with starting Gordon are two-fold. First, Gordon has a history of getting into late-race incidents that have cost him good finishes at Daytona over the last several years. Secondly, Gordon has been driving very aggressively over the last few weeks and could easily get his payback this week. A clean race could easily yield Gordon a top-five, but it's more likely either he or the competition will have other ideas.
Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Since winning the Daytona 500 last year, Kenseth has finished eighth in each of the last two races at the site. In last year's summer race, Kenseth was particularly sharp compiling better loop data than his victory in the season opener. He held an average running position of seventh while spending 94.4 percent of his laps in the top-15. This year, Kenseth was a major overachiever in the Daytona 500. His average running position was only 23rd and he recorded only 7.2 percent of his laps running in the top-15. Now on his third crew chief of the season, Kenseth's last top-10 finish came five races ago, the only other race in which he has run this paint scheme. Struggling and looking for answers, Kenseth may need to sample some of his sponsor's product after this one is over.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Subway Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
In the first 11 races of the season, Edwards posted five top-five finishes and finished no worse than 15th, excluding two DNFs. In the six races since, Edwards has added just one top-10 and has finished 25th or worse in consecutive weeks. While Edwards finished ninth in the Daytona 500 and 11th at Talladega, he and his fellow Roush drivers are looking a step behind right now. In his last six starts at Daytona, Edwards has three top-fives and four top-10s. Those finishes coupled with his success this season in restrictor-plate races may lead some to consider Edwards. A look at the bigger picture, especially in recent weeks, indicates that would be unwise.
Ryan Newman | No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008, Newman has been unable to duplicate anything close to that level of success at the site. In the last four races at Daytona, Newman's best finish is only 20th and his average running position has ranged between 23rd and 37th. In those races, Newman has spent only a combined 13.8 percent of his laps running in the top-15. Since winning at Daytona, Newman does own a top-five and another top-10 at Talladega, but has also crashed in his last two runs there. A review of Newman's strengths this season will show fantasy owners that he should be reserved almost exclusively for flat tracks.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
This season, Montoya is only one of four drivers that have finished in the top-10 at both Daytona and Talladega. In the Daytona 500, Montoya posted career bests by holding an average running position of 11th while spending 91.8 percent of his laps running in the top-15. Montoya has been improving in restrictor-plate races over the last few years but remains a very risky start. Sitting 22nd in the points, Montoya's desperation to get back into the Chase hunt was on full display last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The same level of aggressive driving could end up with Montoya in the wall for the second straight week.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.