One of two restrictor-plate tracks, Daytona International Speedway will host the 51st Daytona 500 Sunday, Feb. 15. Earnhard-Ganassi Racing's Martin Truex Jr. holds the pole, while the cagy Mark Martin will start in second place in his first race with Hendrick Motorsports.
Daytona offers very high speeds, where drivers are able to keep their foot glued to the gas and draft off each other as a key to building up more speed. There is always the threat of "the big one" on this track, where some of the most spectacular wrecks and finishes have occurred. Another factor that makes this race so interesting is that any driver from any starting position can win on this track, making qualifying an afterthought for some drivers.
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Length: 2.50 miles
Turns 1-4: 31 degrees
Front stretch: 18 degrees
Back stretch: 3 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Ryan Newman | No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
Newman is the defending Daytona 500 champion. The 500 was his only win of the 2008 season before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2009. He picked up a top-10 finish in the 2008 Aaron's 499 at the other plate track, Talladega Superspeedway. The remaining plate races, however, were terrible. He finished 36th in the Coke Zero 400 and last in the AMP Energy 500. Obviously those two results were the caused by contact and mechanical failures, but that demonstrates the fickle nature of superspeedways. Newman is a good drafter and knows how to make it to the front of the pack. Daytona looks to be promising for the two Stewart-Haas drivers, too. Keep Newman in your back pocket as a dark horse option.
Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
After pushing his teammate to victory in the 2008 Daytona 500, Busch is back to get to Victory Lane for himself. Busch has always been an astute drafter and tallied eight top-five finishes from 16 starts at Daytona. While he has never found Victory Lane in Daytona, he has come awfully close. Busch should be one to watch as he works the draft throughout the first 450 miles to make a charge to the front for the remaining 50. Even at Talladega Busch has a stout record. His six top-fives and 11 top-10s there, demonstrating again his ability to be in a position to win if the opportunity arises.
Clint Bowyer | No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Bowyer took home one top-five and three top-10s from 2008's four restrictor-plate races. Unfortunately, he finished 24th in the Daytona 500 after starting 31st but did manage to lead four laps. With four top-10s from six career Daytona starts, look for Bowyer to position himself well at the end of the 500 this weekend. He is not a brash driver when compared with others on the plate tracks but usually is able to work himself into the top 10 by the end of the race. He is in a new car for 2009 but with the same organization. Richard Childress Racing cars are usually a force at restrictor-plate tracks, and 2009 looks to be no different.
Mark Martin | No. 5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
Martin has a new lease on life in 2009, when he takes the reins of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5. Martin had a very strong 2008 while only competing part time. While restrictor-plate racing is not a favorite of Martin's, he is quite good at it. He was narrowly pipped by Kevin Harvick for the Daytona 500 win in 2007 and finished 10th in last year's Coke Zero 400. Martin is a smart driver who knows when to push and when to hold back in the draft - experience that has come close to prevailing many times. This season could be Martin's season to do it. He has the car and the team, let's see if luck finds him.
Temper your expectations
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Edwards may be billed as the driver to challenge Jimmie Johnson in 2009, but that doesn't mean Edwards will win every race along the way. Daytona, in particular, has not been the greatest to Edwards. In eight career starts at the track, he has just two top-five finishes, which were also his only two top-10 finishes there. Edwards can hang in the pack but seems to have difficulty leading it. In all of his races at the Superspeedway (regular season and non-points) he only managed to lead six total laps. That was until last weekend's Budweiser Shootout, when he led 11. Know what you are choosing with Edwards, at least for Daytona.
Jamie McMurray | No. 26 Crown Royal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
McMurray had a quiet, if not disappointing, start to his 2008 season. Just one top-10 finish in the first 11 races wasn't a good start. He finished the year strong, though, with three straight top-five finishes in the final three races of the season. His best finish on a restrictor-plate track in 2008 was 17th in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega, and his career average finish is 21.1. McMurray showed that he may have what it takes in the Budweiser Shootout last weekend. While he finished second in the race's largest ever field, furthermore, Roush Fenway Racing cars aren't noted for their restrictor-plate program.
Casey Mears | No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Mears finds himself on a new team for 2009 and taking the No. 07 Jack Daniel's that Clint Bowyer drove in 2008. Some experts have said that the chance Mears currently has with RCR could be the last of his career if he doesn't take advantage of it. With just one top-five finish from 12 career starts at Daytona it is hard to believe that the tide would turn in Mears' favor this weekend. Settling into a new team and dealing with the pressure of trying to impress in what might be his last opportunity may not be the perfect combination for a win in the Daytona 500. Look for Mears to become stronger as the season progresses.
David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Even though Ragan has some decent results at Daytona, his career has been short. In four starts at the track he tallied two top-fives, but also two DNFs. It seems like Ragan could be a 50/50 shot for a good finish in the Daytona 500. He crashed out of the 2008 edition but came home fifth in the 2008 Coke Zero 400. Even still, he has managed to lead only three laps in total at the track, and those were in his first-ever Gatorade Duel in 2007. It is a gamble to expect much from any of the Roush Fenway drivers, and Ragan is no exception. The demonstrated pedigree of winning restrictor-plate races just isn't present in the organization.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Is it any surprise another Roush Fenway racer makes our list of drivers to temper expectations of? Roush Fenway just does not have the Superspeedway package of Hendrick, RCR or Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Almost any other track would make Biffle a great fantasy play except for Daytona. He only scored one win (way back in the 2003 Pepsi 400) and just two other top-10 results at the track. Biffle's average Daytona finish is just 22.7 in 12 career starts. He had the opportunity to run in the Budweiser Shootout but was caught in an early accident. Biffle could get you a solid result, but his history at the track doesn't make him a lock for the 500.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Montoya's 2008 ride was a rough one. The merger between Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. probably won't help Montoya's cause immediately, either. For one, Montoya is now driving a Chevrolet as opposed to the Dodge he piloted last year. Second, the whole organization will still be in a learning curve as to how to work with one another and share data. Montoya may benefit from a bit of the magic DEI tends to have at superspeedways, but don't expect him to reap the full rewards just yet. His results at Daytona have left a lot to be desired, even though he has run up front at times. In four career Daytona starts Montoya has racked up two DNFs and zero top-10s.