Race: Daytona 500
Date: Sunday February 20, 2011
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Time: 1 pm ET
If you watched the commencement of NASCAR in Saturday night’s Shootout, you probably were on the edge of your seat the entire night! There have been a lot of changes coming into this season as with the last few years. There is a new configuration of the cars once again with a major change being made with the removal of the wing permanently (as seen towards the end of last season) and also the major change in the splitters, with the braces now gone. The cars look awesome in my opinion, and the changes are for the better for both the drivers and the crews because of safety issues and also the ease of repairs.
From the Shootout, we saw a lot of front-runners. Denny Hamlin, Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Clint Bowyer were a couple of the guys up front consistently throughout the night. For Jr., the night ended in disappointment as he got involved in another wreck, although he ran very strong to that point. But fear not, Jr. nation! Hopes can remain high as he grabbed the pole and maintains his position as fastest in practice. The interesting thing about the Shootout was the lack of long drafting lines. It remains to be seen if this will continue into the 500, but my opinion is that a lot of the 2-car drafts happened because of the lack of cars on the track. There’s a huge difference between 23 or 24 cars and a full field of 43 cars. There is still the potential for some 2-car breakaway drafts, but I do think that there is going to be the tale-tell Daytona drifting lines of anywhere between 7 and 15 cars. What we also saw was the cooperation between drivers who weren’t teammates. Generally, the drivers try to hook up with teammates during these super speedway races, but it seems that the drafting picks have now turned into whoever is friends off the track or simply whoever is running fastest at the time despite teammate position.
Daytona itself is the Super Bowl of racing. This 2.5 mile tri-oval is comprised of a 1,900 front stretch with a backstretch coming in at a hefty 3,800 feet. This track has a steep 31 degree banking as well. Additionally, the surface is new. Because of this, the bumps and roughness have disappeared making passing and sling-shot moves a lot easier or at least allow the drivers to use a little more finesse.
In terms of the winner this weekend, as I always say about super speedways, there is a lot of unpredictability here. From the insane crashes involving sometimes tens of cars to drivers simply drafting past the entire field, the winner is difficult to pin-point. The early indicators show that there are certainly going to be front-runners like Hamlin, Bowyer, Jr., etc. In my opinion, the strongest guys are going to be the Hendrick cars of Gordon and Jr. this weekend along with Hamlin and Shootout winner Kurt Busch. I think that these are going to be the ones to watch. As far as the winner, I am going to go out on a bit of a limb with Jeff Gordon being my pick this year for the Great American Race. As someone who definitely needs the win, he was performing extremely well during practice, qualifying and the Shootout. I think that Jr. is going to have a great run, but his inability to stay out of wreck worries me and leads me to believe that he will not be able to win this one.
There is also the hype surrounding Carl Edwards. I think that he will do very well here being that he has so much success at Atlanta, which is the fastest track on the circuit. However, his performance at the Shootout left something to be desired. Super speedways haven’t always been his strongest suit, so look for him to perform well, but I don’t think he will be a factor in the win this weekend.
Here’s the bottom line. We saw speeds well over 200 mph during the Shootout. The 500 is going to be a test of endurance for these drivers. With the new cars, the new surface, and the many team and crew chief changes, we are going to have an amazing race this Sunday. Look for Gordon in victory lane with teammates Johnson and Jr. making solid top 10, if not top 5, runs. Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards are also going to be strong contenders. Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer had quite the draft going as well, so they should make a solid run. Welcome to the 2011 NASCAR season! Sit back and enjoy the roar as the motors start back up for an incredibly exciting season of top-notch stock car racing!
Virginia’s Pick to Win the 2011 Daytona 500: Jeff Gordon at 12-1 odds.