After numerous tweaks to the race cars, NASCAR appears to have finally squashed the two-car tandem that had taken over the traditional pack racing seen in the last several restrictor plate events. With these changes enter concerns about water temperature while attempting a two-car push and an issue when contact is made to the left rear bumper. Thankfully the Budweiser Shootout and two Gatorade Duels, in addition to seven practices, will all help to shed some light on the drivers that are adjusting best to this new plate package.
Restrictor plate racing is a different style, so the results of the 54th Daytona 500 will help forecast the early May event at Talladega Superspeedway, the only other plate track on the schedule. There's also return trips to each venue to consider. Daytona holds the annual Independence Day weekend race while 'Dega gets a Chase event in October.
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Length: 2.50 miles
Turns 1-4: 31 degrees
Frontstretch: 18 degrees
Backstretch: 3 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Fastenal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
While Edwards has never won at Daytona and has only led a total of four laps in 14 career starts he's consistently finished well at the site. Since 2007, Edwards owns half a dozen top-10 results at DIS with an average running position of 12th or better on five occasions. Cousin Carl has also scored pair of runner-up performances at DIS, including last year's Daytona 500. Edwards has already scored the pole position for the Great American Race and could very well end the day in the same spot.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Since 2010, Harvick has been a force in restrictor plate races. In those eight combined races he's won at both Daytona and Talladega with a total of six top-10s. While an engine failure ended Harvick's day early in last year's Daytona 500, he held a highly impressive average running position of ninth or better in the other three DIS races. RCR had mastered the two-car tandem style of plate racing but Harvick should adjust to the new pack format without incident.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Since joining Hendrick in 2008, Earnhardt's level of performance at Daytona has alternated between good and bad each year. After a pair of top-10s, he finished outside of the top 25 in each DIS race of 2009. Earnhardt bounced right back as the runner-up at the 2010 Daytona 500 and another top-five in the Independence Day weekend event. While he ran ninth, on the average, in last year's opener, a late wreck left Earnhardt to finish in 24th. Earnhardt was fast out of the box for Speedweeks and appears very trustworthy.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Brown Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
While his victory in the Shootout was extremely impressive, Busch is a statistical standout at Daytona and a must start in most formats. Among all drivers in the DIS field, he ranks first in both career Driver Rating and average running position. Last year, Busch finished eighth and fifth, respectively, at the site. With the overly sensitive left rear bumpers causing several wrecks in the Shootout, Busch's unrivaled saving ability is a major asset.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Over the last seven starts at DIS, Biffle owns a single top-10 at the site, a third-place result from the 2010 Daytona 500. However, his impressive run thus far in Speedweeks makes The Biff a driver to target. In the two practice sessions held thus far, he topped the speed chart each time and will be starting on the outside pole after qualifying. In the Shootout, Biffle finished sixth after leading a race-high 17 laps out of 82.
Marcos Ambrose | No. 9 Stanley Ford | Richard Petty Motorsports
This will be Ambrose's seventh career start at Daytona, which includes only one top-10 and two DNFs. However, Ambrose was one of six Ford drivers to finish inside the top 10 in time trials. Even though just first two drivers are locked into those starting positions for the race it suggests the Fords could be quite formidable. The Australian had a chance to win the Shootout until Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart broke away from the pack to wrestle for the checkered flag leaving Ambrose in third.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
All four of Montoya's top-10 finishes at Daytona have come in his last five starts. In that span, he's held an average running position of 13th or better on three occasions. Montoya overcame a poor starting draw for the Shootout to finish 10th. Aggressive driving can pay off at DIS giving JPM an excellent opportunity to collect another top-10 finish.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. | No. 6 Ford EcoBoost Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
A lack of sponsorship dollars removed David Ragan from behind the wheel of the No. 6 car but Stenhouse will give the classic number a reprieve for the Daytona 500 after the team won at this site last July. Last year's Nationwide Series champion qualified ninth and finished 11th in his first Cup start at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past May. The 24 year old Stenhouse will start on the second row for the first Duel race. A good performance there elevates him to a very legitimate sleeper.
Temper your expectations
Ryan Newman | No. 39 U.S. Army/Quicken Loans Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Despite winning the 2008 Daytona 500, Newman has never been much of a driver in plate races. In fact, since winning the aforementioned race he's failed to finish better than 20th in the last seven DIS races. Last year, Newman did average 31 laps led at Daytona with good average running positions but finished 22nd and 23rd, respectively.
Trevor Bayne | No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford | Wood Brothers Racing
Yes, Bayne was the surprise winner in last year's Daytona 500 but challenging for a repeat performance is a very difficult task. After shocking the NASCAR world, Bayne failed to record another top-10 finish in his other 16 starts last season. He also crashed in each of the next two plate races including a wreck on the fifth lap of the July race at DIS after qualifying the car on the outside pole. Among bottom-tier drivers, Bayne may prove to be an overvalued commodity.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's 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. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.