After all the hype throughout the offseason, the Generation-6 race car will finally get to run the full distance of a points race this weekend in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. Thankfully, fantasy owners will get a little preview of the new machine throughout the Budweiser Speedweeks. The Sprint Unlimited was held last Saturday night with a 19-car field, limited to recent pole winners and previous champs of the event. While the front row has already been settled, the rest of the starting grid will be set on Thursday after the field is split in two for the Budweiser Duels.
Restrictor plate racing is a different style, so the results of the 55th Daytona 500 will only help to immediately forecast the early May event at Talladega Superspeedway, the second 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
Matt Kenseth | No. 20 Dollar General Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Not only is Kenseth a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and the defending champion of this race, he emerged as the top driver on both restrictor plate tracks a year ago. In the four total races held at Daytona and Talladega, Kenseth won at each venue, finished third in the other two starts and led an average of 61.3 laps per race. Of course, the team and the car around him is totally different than a year ago, but last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited exhibition proved the rest of the field is still playing catch up. Despite finishing fifth, Kenseth looked as though he had the best car on the track and led 26 of the 75 laps.
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
The aforementioned Sprint Unlimited was won by Harvick, who owns two career wins at Daytona. Harvick really excelled in restrictor plate races during the 2010 season, thanks to mastering the defunct two-car tandem draft. He's been just fine with the more traditional style, too. Last year at Daytona, Harvick left the 500 with a seventh-place performance and had a similar result brewing in the July race until he was collected in a late wreck. He also ran well throughout the Chase event at Talladega.
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Bass Pro Shops/Mobil 1 Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
With last year's July victory, Stewart has now won the Independence Day weekend event at Daytona a total of four times. However, despite all the summer success, Smoke is still seeking his first victory in the 500. Since loop data was introduced in 2005, Stewart ranks second among all drivers in both driver rating and average running position at Daytona. Stewart has also been able to avoid the on-track mayhem that typically ensues at DIS. Since becoming an owner-driver in 2009, Stewart has only finished off the lead lap once.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Since moving to HMS in 2008, Earnhardt has finished inside the top five on three occasions at Daytona with five top-10s in 10 starts. Last year, he finished as the runner-up in the 500, but did not lead a lap. Earnhardt's fantasy ownership is typically very high in allocation formats for plate races, so don't expect to get much value when it comes to starting the most popular driver in the sport this week. However, Earnhardt typically grabs a strong starting position during the qualifying race and is a threat for another top-five finish.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Among all drivers, Busch is the top wheelman at Daytona as measured by driver rating, average running position and laps spent running in the top 15. Despite all the strong loop data, Rowdy hasn't always recorded the finish to match. Last year, Busch ran well in both DIS races only to be collected in late wrecks. Talladega was not an issue, however. Busch finished as the runner-up in May and third in the Chase race. Back in the 2011 events at Daytona he did deliver, with finishes of eighth and fifth, respectively.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Fastenal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
One of the lone bright spots for Edwards during a miserable 2012 season was his top-10 finishes in each race at Daytona. Edwards started on the pole for the 500, but did not lead a single lap prior to finishing eighth. In the July race, he matched a career-high average running position of ninth and finished sixth. Edwards has not crashed at Daytona since the 2006 edition of the 500 and has finished inside the top 10 in six of the last seven DIS races.
Joey Logano | No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford | Penske Championship Racing
In addition to finishing third in the Sprint Unlimited, Logano has been impressive in the last three points paying races at DIS. Logano finished ninth in last year's Daytona 500 and inside the top five in each of the last two July races. Coming off a disappointing 2012 season, one that greatly contributed to his departure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano looks like an undervalued option for the season opener.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
In his second straight disappointing campaign, Burton only managed two top-fives and six top-10s in all of 2012. However, both of the top-five finishes came at Daytona, while two of the other top-10s came at Talladega. Unless there's a sudden turnaround, Burton is nothing but a dark horse driver limited exclusively to restrictor plate tracks. Consider him a nifty one and done-type of play.
Temper your expectations
Kasey Kahne | No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Since 2010, Kahne owns an average finish of 4.3 in the July races at Daytona yet finished no better than 25th in the 500. Starting elite or borderline elite drivers at Daytona or Talladega is a risky proposition, unless the resume is sterling. While Kahne is coming off a career year, he's best saved for another day and a track better suited to his skills.
Danica Patrick | No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
After scoring the pole position for her second career Daytona 500, all eyes are on Patrick as she embarks on her first full-time Cup season. Patrick is not a stranger to excellent starting position at Daytona. Last year, she started first and third in the pair of Nationwide races at DIS but finished outside of the top 30 each time. A year ago for the 500, Patrick started 29th and finished 64 laps down in 38th position.