For three months the anticipation built up in preparation for the 50th running of the Daytona 500, all the way up until the green flag flew over 43 of the world’s best drivers to kick off the 2008 season Sunday afternoon. The expected Hendrick Motorsports dominance was overshadowed by the success of Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota with Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each taking turns at the front of the field while only one Hendrick car finished in the top 25.
As the closing laps came winding down, it was two drivers who hadn’t necessarily been contenders for the majority of the race who teamed up for a 1-2 finish. The Penske cars of Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are obviously two of the hottest cars coming out of Daytona, but who else is satisfied with their performance in the Great American Race? Who is already behind the eight-ball after just one race? Come in and find out in this week’s edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup.
Newman: This is a no-brainer. By winning the Daytona 500, Newman carries more momentum into the upcoming season than anybody. The No. 12 quietly stalked the leaders in the last half of the race and pounced past Stewart on the final lap with help from teammate Kurt Busch.
If you’re expecting a hangover from such a big win next week at California – think again. Newman was second-fastest in testing in Fontana last month.
Kyle Busch: It didn’t matter what car Busch was in this Speedweeks, he was always up front. On the Sprint Cup side, the No. 18 was the fastest car in the Daytona 500, but couldn’t get by Stewart down the stretch to finish fourth. JGR looked extremely strong and Busch, along with Stewart and Hamlin, should give Hendrick Motorsports a run for their money all year.
Stewart: The sport’s “bad boy” was in the news for all of the wrong reasons prior to the Daytona 500 because of an alleged fight between he and Kurt Busch, but was the second strongest car in the Daytona 500 behind only teammate Kyle Busch. Stewart looked like he might pull out the victory, but the Penske cars of Newman and Busch teamed up on the outside for the win in the closing moments of the race.
If Toyota really is as strong as they seem, Stewart will be in prime position for several wins in 2008; he proved on Sunday that Toyota is already competitive enough for victory lane.
Kurt Busch: It was a very bad week for Busch coming into the Daytona 500 with the climax coming from a practice altercation with Stewart. Rumor had it that Stewart had hit Busch while in the NASCAR hauler, but on Sunday, Busch had the last laugh when he shoved his teammate past Stewart for the win on the final lap. A second-place run in the opener could be just what the No. 2 team needs to jump start its season as one of the top Dodge teams.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A lot of drivers would have been happy with a ninth-place run in the Daytona 500 – but not Earnhardt Jr. After winning the Duel 150 qualifying race and Budweiser Shootout, the No. 88 was the odds on favorite coming into the Daytona 500, but a questionable late-race pit strategy call by Tony Eury Jr. to stay out under caution while the rest of the leaders pit for tires hurt the former Daytona 500 champion’s chance at a win.
We all knew Junior would be strong at Daytona and Talladega, but the first true test for the sport’s most popular driver comes this week at California. The Hendrick cars are traditionally strong at the 2-mile oval – and just about every other track – so it will be interesting to see if the No. 88 is competitive once again.
Reed Sorenson: Sorenson was one of the strongest cars all of Speedweeks. Perhaps the young Ganassi driver is finally coming into his own as a driver, but the No. 41 was in position for the upset in the final laps of the Daytona 500. He also pushed Junior to the win in the Duel 150 and ran at the front in the Budweiser Shootout.
It could be that the No. 41 had a strong superspeedway program, but Sorenson was also impressive in California testing, posting the eighth-fastest time.
Kyle Petty: It was great to see a Petty Enterprises car towards the front of the 50th running of the Daytona 500, but unfortunately for Petty, it was the No. 43 of Bobby Labonte that finished 13th, not the No. 45. Petty finished 34th and was never a factor in the race, but having one car run near the front bodes well for the team.
JJ Yeley: The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were the class of the field for nearly the entire Daytona 500 and while each of the three JGR cars took turns up front, Yeley in a Gibbs satellite car for Hall of Fame Racing, failed to lead a lap and finished 25th. The Toyotas are quick and Yeley should start running stronger soon, but he was just 46th in testing at California.
Dario Franchitti: A number of rookies struggled at Daytona with Sam Hornish Jr. having the only respectable day. Franchitti was the second-highest finishing rookie, but managed only a 33rd-place run and was considerably slower than his Ganassi Racing teammates. The road doesn’t get any easier from here with the series heading to California where he was 48th of 49 cars in testing last month.
Jacques Villeneuve: Back on Feb. 9 the esteemed staff here at Frontstretch predicted – among a number of other things – the first driver fired for the 2008 season. Among the 18 of us so-called “experts,” only S.D. Grady predicted that Villeneuve would be the first driver fired, but nobody could have predicted he would be out of the seat so soon.
OK, so he hasn’t been fired, but after failing to find a sponsor and missing the Daytona 500, Bill Davis Racing has been forced to replace the rookie with veteran Toyota drivers Mike Skinner and Johnny Benson. BDR will continue to support Villeneuve and says that the seat is available upon finding a sponsor, but Skinner will be in the car this week at California.
AJ Allmendinger: The first five races of 2008 are critical for those teams outside the Top 35 in car owner points. With two cars on the outside of the “bubble,” Red Bull Racing got one team in the Daytona 500 (Brian Vickers – 12th), but Allmendinger is suddenly in the same hole that he started 2007 with after failing to make the race. He was middle of the road in testing at California last month (26th of 49 cars) and will once again have to qualify on time.