The Frontstretch: Fantasy Insider: Looking for Some NASCAR Aces In The Biggest of Races by Jeff Wolfe -- Thursday February 21, 2013

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It’s time again for the biggest race of the year this Sunday: NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Since it’s a restrictor plate track, it’s also one of the biggest pains to try and pick a winning team within your league. As you probably know, anything can and often does happen during a restrictor plate race; the only thing that’s predictable is that they’re unpredictable. That’s why fans love those kind of events, four times a year while most drivers are simply driven crazy by them. Of the 43 that will start Sunday’s Daytona 500 (1 PM, FOX) probably about 30 stand a legitimate shot at winning the 55th running of The Great American Race — and all of them could easily be the victim of a 15-car wreck.

Since almost anybody can win, though that means it’s not a bad race to pick one of your underdogs. Many leagues have limits on how many races you can pick a driver in, so plate tracks sometimes are not where you pick the usual suspects. Why use them now when you will need them later at more “predictable” venues? So start off the year by taking a chance… it’s more likely than usual to pay off.

With that said, let’s take a look at how I expect the first race of the year to shake out for your team…

Looking for Some Aces

Of the top drivers, and you likely have to pick one of them for this week, three that I like for Daytona based on recent history and performance are Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick.

Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500, even though he has 18 victories at the speedway in other races. At some point, it’s going to be his turn; he looked strong in the Sprint Unlimited Saturday night and also showed he may be willing to take a chance or two to try and win the main event.

Stewart hung onto it Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited, learning a valuable lesson for the 500: Don’t go low until the spotter say so.

In the same race, Kenseth was in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs for the first time (officially) in competition and he looked strong as well. This underrated plate racer has proven he can win the Daytona 500; he did it just last year and back in 2009. Starting off a new season earning a win, with a different team would be a big boost for the next 25 races before The Chase begins.

Finally, Harvick isn’t called “The Closer” without good cause. He also has a knack for staying out of trouble, like he did in the Unlimited race Saturday and in the first practice session last Friday. That may be the biggest key of all in this race, simply missing the wrecks. And if the four-leaf clover hangs tough, attached to the No. 29 it would be no surprise to see Harvick going for the win on the final lap.

Middle of The Road

After picking your top driver, then you to drop down to the second tier of competitors. This is the largest group in most leagues, so we’ll give you a few here to chose from.

If Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is listed as a second-tier driver, then he pretty much has to be a premier pick at a restrictor plate track, even if you do have race limits. While he had a promising 2012, there’s no guarantee he will join the every week contenders, making him a definite pick here despite the blown engine in Wednesday’s practice. HMS has a bunch of them in the trailer; he’ll be just fine.

If you’re looking to use a driver you probably won’t use much this year, a good sleeper pick is Paul Menard. In the last four races at Daytona, guess who has the best average finish? Yes, it’s Menard who registers a promising 9.25. Unless he has a breakout season, this track is probably one of the few where you can make a case for picking the Richard Childress Racing regular.

Gen-6 Car, Gen-2 ‘Nard Burns. I know The Paul Menard Empire will pick Paul this weekend – he might be just the driver for your fantasy league as well.

Another mid-packer who could end up near the front Sunday is Kurt Busch. Sure, we all know about his well-documented temper tantrums and patience issues. However, we all know he has the ability to race well on plate tracks, too. Just what Busch will do this year can’t be predicted — but I’ll be tempted to take him this week, particularly with that same RCR power that propelled Harvick to victory in Saturday Night’s Sprint Unlimited.

A driver many forget about after his performance the past few years, and we’re not blaming you if you did, is Jeff Burton. He’s pretty much in a make-it-or-break-it kind of year and he’d love to get off to a good start. Well, Daytona just might be the place for him to do that. He has an average finish of 12.8 on restrictor plate tracks since 2011, second best behind Kenseth. Sense an RCR pattern here?

Finally, two other names you can’t ignore that are on many second-tier lists are Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. The risk here is that they have a greater chance of success later in the year at intermediate and short tracks, which means you could be wasting a pick if both return to form through the entire Sprint Cup schedule. However, keep in mind that in the last four races at Daytona Edwards has an average finish of 13.25, fifth best, and Kyle Busch has an average finish of 13.50, sixth best.

The Dark Horses

This group is my favorite to pick from, especially at this type of speedway because chances for a surprise breakthrough are good. If you get a top-10 finish from one of these drivers, then you most likely are in store to have a really good week.

Even before practice began for Daytona, I was set for picking Trevor Bayne for this spot. He validated my instinct on Sunday by qualifying third. Another reason to pick Bayne here is that he is on a partial Sprint Cup schedule, limiting his availability and this track is the type where he can do well at, having won the Daytona 500 already in 2011. He’s with the same team, essentially driving a fourth Roush Fenway Ford, with Roush Yates power between the fenders — and he’s sporting the paint scheme that Tiny Lund drove to Victory Lane here 50 years ago, subbing for the injured Marvin Panch in 1963.

Trevor Bayne’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is dripping with nostalgia this weekend – but he also holds a piece of history as well, having won the 2011 Daytona 500.

I wasn’t even going to consider picking anyone else, but then we had a woman do something to make us reconsider. Danica Patrick won the pole for the Daytona 500, and you at least have to put her in the discussion to pick for this race. The other factor is that she has looked comfortable drafting in the big packs at Daytona and Talladega during the Nationwide races last year. She’s had trouble finishing at the plate tracks, getting caught up in big crashes last year, as well as some post-race extra-curricular activities, so that’s a factor too. But the point is, you can’t ignore her when it comes to making your Daytona picks this week – and it’s everyone’s first full race in the Gen-6 car, so she’s on equal footing with the rest of them for a change.

One other dark horse to look at, simply because he has been so good on plate tracks is Michael Waltrip. He’s won two Daytona 500s – 2001 and 2003 – and will only run on plate tracks this season, so this is a rare opportunity to pick him here. Oh, and look at that – he was fastest in the first practice for the Duels on Wednesday.

All that being said, I’d still pick Bayne out of this group.

Here’s hoping your Daytona week is a happy one, no matter how your picks do.

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