The Nextel Cup circuit heads to Daytona this week for NASCAR’s traditional Independence Day extravaganza. Held on the 2.5-mile tri-oval to mark the end of the season’s first half, the 400-miler gives us a chance to take stock and look back on what’s been a wild and wacky beginning to ’07. Even though the race is no longer held ON the 4th of July, it still involves a prolonged celebration of our country’s independence nonetheless.
As for your fantasy team, it’s a bit of a crapshoot; the Pepsi 400 is a completely different race from the Daytona 500 that kicked off the season. This race is during the heat of the Summer and is run completely at night. It is also the final restrictor-plate race in the old-style car – the final plate race of the year at Talladega will be run with the Car of Tomorrow.
Looking for the right combination to make sure you light your own fireworks… on the racetrack itself? We’ve got all the information you’ll ever need in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.
Cami’s Race Rewind
Last year, Tony Stewart did a little fence-climbing to celebrate the Fourth of July after winning his second straight Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Stewart, who started from outside the front row, paced the field for 86 laps en route to his second victory of the season. But it wasn’t easy going for Smoke. He had to deal with surprise pole winner Boris Said as the laps wound down, a rookie thinking upset on his mind as he led the race with just 10 laps to go. A multi-car wreck set up a three-lap sprint to the checkers and Stewart was able to make his move on the white-flag lap… just before NASCAR threw another caution for debris that ended the race. The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, wound up second and third, respectively, just ahead of Said and Elliott Sadler, who rounded out the top-five finishers.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Racing in the summertime is completely different from racing in the spring at Daytona. With the track baked by the sun all day long, the asphalt holds heat well into the night, creating a different track temperature than you’d normally see. Daytona is already a handling sensitive racetrack, but the July race is far more dependent on handling than the 500. The cars still run a restricted engine, too, so the key to running fast is simple: horsepower and aerodynamics.
Plate tracks are still the playground of Chevrolet, so you can expect a bowtie in the Winner’s Circle again on Saturday night. The Hendrick cars are always strong on plate tracks, so Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are solid picks. Casey Mears and Kyle Busch would also make nice second-tier picks if you can get them. The Joe Gibbs cars will also be strong; Stewart won this race two years in a row and was the car to beat in February before he was taken out. His teammate Denny Hamlin won the Bud Shootout two years ago. Finally, you cannot overlook RCR driver and 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick. And let’s not leave out DEI. With Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s pedigree and record on the plate tracks, look for him to be a serious contender.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Earnhardt Jr. is still a huge threat any time the Series gets to a restrictor plate track. Fresh off a six-week suspension, Junior’s crew chief Tony Eury Jr. has been looking forward to getting back in time for this race. His return will most likely motivate the team, making Junior a very big threat this weekend. On top of that, the No. 8 car is running a special paint scheme, and that’s all you need to know; those have worked out well for Junior at Daytona in the past. This is the weekend to put Junior in your lineup.
Stewart has won the last two July races at Daytona. He was also the car to beat in February before he was taken out by Kurt Busch. The Summer is always when Stewart heats up, but he hasn’t really turned up the heat yet. Look for him to make a statement by winning three in a row in the July race at Daytona.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Jamie McMurray has had some good runs at Daytona; he even finished second in this race in 2005. However, most of his results have been less than stellar. He has a bad habit of getting caught up in wrecks at plate tracks, and his luck of late has looked like he’s getting ready to do that again. With an average finish of 27.9 at the track, don’t count on him to break out with much this weekend.
Carl Edwards finally broke his winless streak, but he hasn’t looked like he’s ready to break the winless streak on plate tracks. In five races at Daytona, his best finish is 12th. With an average finish of 30th at the track, this is not the weekend to put Edwards in your lineup.
Roll the Dice:
Kurt Busch was the second strongest car at Daytona in February, but it is either feast or famine for the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Busch has scored two second-place finishes, a third and two fourths at Daytona and can obviously get around on plate tracks, but his bad luck has cost him dearly as well. This is reflected by an average finishing position of 22nd. The way the team looked in February, they have to be confident coming into this weekend, and if some cards fall their way, they just might bring Roger Penske his first restrictor plate win.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Gordon said this week that he wasn’t really pleased with his car at Daytona in the 500. Well, considering he still came out of the day with a 10th-place finish, the competition should be on notice. Gordon won the season’s earlier plate race at Talladega in April and comes into this weekend’s event as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. Granted, he won’t have crew chief Steve Letarte on the pit box, but last week showed that it simply doesn’t matter — they will just find a way to work around the problem. With six wins and 16 top 10s in his 29 Daytona starts, it really doesn’t seem to matter who is on the pit box for the No. 24 team. Clearly, Gordon knows how to get things done at Daytona.
Harvick kicked off the year with a thrilling victory in the Daytona 500, going up high to beat Mark Martin to the line by inches. While RCR isn’t the big plate threat that they used to be, Harvick still knows how to get up front when it counts: He was sixth at Talladega in April and has five top-10 finishes at Daytona. Look for Harvick to once again be in position to steal away the limelight Saturday night.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Once again, it appears that Greg Biffle will fail to make the cut for the Chase for the second straight year. That is, unless the team gets hot in a hurry, but I don’t look for Daytona to be a springboard for a late-season comeback. His win here in 2003 is his only finish in the top 10 at this track, and he has cracked the top 20 just one other time. If you’re waiting to use Biffle in the hopes he will suddenly pick up the pace, well… wait until Michigan comes around.
During the spring months, Kyle Busch seemed to be riding a roller coaster. One week he was up, the next he was down. While he’s steadied the ship somewhat in recent weeks, a trip to Daytona may get the ship rockin’ once again. In five Daytona starts, he has just one top-10 finish – a second here last year. His overall average finish of 23.6 and a 37th-place finish at Talladega in April shouldn’t make you get too excited about using Kyle this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Thanks to his win at Charlotte, Mears is starting to look like he really fits in at Hendrick Motorsports. And for the most part (see Kyle Busch above), Hendrick drivers fare very well at Daytona. Mears finished with two top 10s at Daytona in 2006 but placed a mediocre 20th in February. Still, his win has certainly given this team a renewed confidence and momentum. Look for Casey to possibly have a shot at giving crew chief Darian Grubb win number two at Daytona.
Mike: So, you think that Gordon is going to get his act together after a disappointing Daytona 500 and actually be able to do well, even without his crew chief on the pit box?
Cami: I had to change my mind on that after you took Stewart. But even though he was disappointed, Gordon was still 10th in the 500. And they are on such a roll. That crew chief stuff doesn’t matter. Unless Brian gets his rule change implemented quick.
Mike: I agree to some extent, although we’ve seen this race in the past come down to tire strategy and fuel… so not having Letarte on the box might actually be a detriment this week. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if Harvick will be able to get the mojo back. They’ve been up and down this year.
Cami: In plate racing, it’s all a gamble. You just pick the guys that you think will be there and hope Johnson doesn’t cause a wreck at the front of the pack. Which is why I’m surprised you rolled the dice with Kurt. If there is bad luck to be had, he usually finds it.
Mike: He does find it, but he’s also had five top-five finishes at the track. And the way he ran in February, I think he’s going to be a threat. But that’s why its roll the dice, because it is a gamble. Speaking of gambles, your on again, off again love affair with Mears is back on again?
Cami: Yeah, for now, it is at least. That win really helped him. Like you said, it’s a gamble pick. I contemplated Gilliland for about 30 seconds.
Mike: HA HA HA, now that if funny right there! I see you don’t think that the Biff can find his stride that he had a few years ago when he won this race, eh?
Cami: They seem to be more off than on lately. Last week they were horrible. Other than that win, he doesn’t have anything to brag about at Daytona. Speaking of bragging rights… you think Junior can win at Daytona in his last race there in a DEI machine?
Mike: Yes, I do. I think Eury has been focused on this race since he was suspended, and he is determined to come back with a piece that can win. I think the whole team was embarrassed with how average they were in February.
Cami: But they’ve been running really well without Eury. Maybe having him back will mess with their mojo.
Mike: I don’t think so. Its a plate race. Gibson is still on the box, he’s just not making the calls. And from the sound of the rumors, he wasn’t in the last few races. Isn’t modern technology awesome?
Cami: No kidding. I bet those three weren’t too pleased with TNT making that announcement during the race. Not that anyone with a brain could figure that out on their own. But now NASCAR knows that everyone knows it.
Mike: Yeah, that is a black eye for NASCAR, for sure. I guess we’ll see how it pans out.
Crank ‘Em Up: 13.4
Sit ‘Em Down: 23.5
Roll the Dice: 19.6
Crank ‘Em Up: 11.7
Sit ‘Em Down: 23.3
Roll the Dice: 19.6