Author’s Note: In preparing the handicaps for the first five races of 2007, I will be using the top 20 points finishers of 2006, just as NASCAR uses the same criteria for the first five races. After the fifth race, the handicaps will reflect this year’s top 20 points positions.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson won last year’s Daytona 500, and his 32nd-place result in last year’s Firecracker 400 ended a streak of five finishes of sixth or better in Daytona points races. On the plate tracks lately, the Hendrick cars always seem to be contenders.
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth’s fifth-place finish here last July was his first ever top five at Daytona in a points race. He had just four additional top 10 results here in 14 points race starts, and his average finish is about 20th.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin won last year’s Bud Shootout, but finished a less than memorable 30th in the next weekend’s 500. He rebounded nicely with a 17th-place finish here in last year’s Firecracker, though. If Hamlin hooks up with teammate Tony Stewart, he should do OK.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick’s best Cup point race finishes at Daytona are a pair of fourths, and a ninth-place finish here last July ended a streak of four consecutive Daytona finishes of 14th or worse. Harvick does have three runner-up finishes in Daytona Busch events. (It is still the Busch Series for one more year, right?)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Junior won the 2004 Daytona 500 and the 2001 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. He was also the runner-up in the tragic 2001 500 that claimed his father’s life. A 13th place finish here last July ended Earnhardt’s streak of seven consecutive top-10 finishes at a track where even finishing seven consecutive races is a notable achievement.
Jeff Gordon: Gordon has won three Daytona 500s and three Firecrackers. He has top-10 finishes in more than half his 28 points race starts here, but last year, Gordon struggled at Daytona with a 26th-place finish in the 500 and a DNF last July. Still, he and Earnhardt have to be considered favorites heading into this year’s 500 based on their plate track results.
Jeff Burton: Most race fans will recall Dale Earnhardt won the 1998 Daytona 500. How many remember Burton finished second that day? That was one of five top-five finishes Burton has managed in 26 points starts at Daytona, but his average finish in the last six points races here is worse than 25th.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne hasn’t found the magic at Daytona in a Cup car. He’s averaging a 23rd-place finish in six starts here, with a best result of 11th in last year’s 500.
Mark Martin: Oddly enough, Martin has never won a points race here in 43 starts. He does have eight top-five finishes in those 43 starts, but with a part-time effort this year, Martin winning the Daytona 500 (or even managing a top-10 finish) would be a bit of a shock.
Kyle Busch: Busch finished second here in last summer’s Firecracker 400, but his other three Cup points finishes at Daytona have been dismal to be kind. His Busch record here is similarly unspectacular.
Stewart: Stewart has won the last two Firecracker 400s and finished second in the 2004 Daytona 500. Over the last six points races at Daytona, Stewart has been averaging better than a fourth-place finish. If the win doesn’t go to DEI or Hendrick Racing this weekend, it will be Stewart in Victory Lane.
Carl Edwards: Edwards has failed to finish two of the last three Daytona points races, both times because of wrecks, and he finished dead last in last year’s Daytona 500. He did manage a 12th place finish here back in February of ’05, but it’s been downhill here ever since.
Greg Biffle: Biffle won the 2003 Firecracker 400, but has only one other top 20 finish in Daytona points races in eight stabs at the joint. In fact, he’s only led two additional laps here since posting that win.
Casey Mears: Mears struggled mightily here in his first six starts at Daytona, but he finished second in last year’s 500 and seventh here in July.
Brian Vickers: Vickers won the last NASCAR plate race (in controversial style) at Talladega last fall. But this year, he’s left the Hendrick team which has enjoyed so much success on the plate tracks and traded his Monte Carlo in for one of them new make cars that smells like a five-alarmer at the Uncle Ben’s factory. Not looking good for him.
Kurt Busch: It’s feast or famine here for Busch. His five top-five finishes here (including a second place finish in the ’05 Daytona 500) are offset by six finishes of 30th or worse in 12 Daytona point race starts.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer fared pretty well at Daytona last year as a rookie; he finished sixth and 10th in the two 2006 Daytona points races. If he’d run that well all of last season, people would still be asking “Denny who?”
Ryan Newman: Newman is averaging a 19th-place finish at this track, but did manage a credible third-place result in last year’s 500. This driver desperately needs to get this season off on the right foot and not on his roof.
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex won a Daytona Busch Series race in 2005, but hasn’t been a factor in a Cup car at Daytona to date despite driving for DEI. Certainly, he’ll be waiting in line for the porta-potties after what happened in his last visit to Daytona.
Scott Riggs: Riggs failed to qualify for last year’s Daytona 500. That might just have spared him additional humiliation, though, because he’s averaging a 24th-place finish here despite a fourth-place result in the Daytona 500 of 2005.
Others To Watch
Dale Jarrett: Jarrett has won four points races at Daytona, including three 500s. But he’s being hampered this year by his new Toy car, so it’s tough to know what to expect.
Michael Waltrip: Waltrip has posted three Daytona points victories including two Daytona 500 wins (one race was marred by tragedy, the other shortened by rain). But the question as this is written has to be will Waltrip even qualify for this year’s 500?