Just as the Daytona 500 brings stock car racing roaring back to life, it also marks the beginning of the 2009 season for hundreds of thousands of fantasy racers across the country. And just as every driver in the 500 field needs a strong finish this Sunday to kick off their campaigns, every fantasy racer wants to get a jump on their competition the first weekend of the season. Picking a restrictor-plate race is never easy – but Frontstretch’s own Bryan Davis Keith and Mike Neff are nonetheless going to bump-draft you to the front of your respective leagues.
By the Numbers
Best Average Finish At Daytona (active drivers, since 2005)
Clint Bowyer, 6 starts, 12.3
Kasey Kahne, 8 starts, 13.0
Robby Gordon, 7 starts, 13.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 8 starts, 14.0
Tony Stewart, 8 starts, 14.8
The Cream of the Crop
While all eyes at Hendrick Motorsports will be on Mark Martin and his quest to take one final (maybe) shot at winning the Great American Race, Jeff Gordon could play the spoiler. After going winless in 2008 for the first time since 1993, there is not a hungrier driver than the three-time Daytona 500 champ. Gordon has won six points races at Daytona, and was a contender throughout the Shootout on Saturday night. Of all four HMS horses, this is the one to bet on. – Bryan
Kyle Busch was the man for the bulk of the regular season last year. It didn’t matter what type of track he was running on… Busch was a threat to win every weekend. He logged two wins and a fourth in the three restrictor-plate races prior to the Chase, and led the most laps in the 500 last year – but was unfortunately shuffled out right at the end. Expect to see Busch kick off 2009 in similar fashion once again. – Mike
The Middle of the Pack
Newman won last year’s Daytona 500… and this year, he’s in a better car. Though the results may not show it on paper, Newman has become one of the most underrated plate racers on the Cup circuit today. His intelligence on the track has had him in contention to win the last three Daytona 500s (third in 2006, top five with less than 25 to go in 2007, won in 2008). With Hendrick horsepower under the hood, Newman is not only a surefire pick for a good run Sunday – I’m taking him to make it two 500s in a row. – Bryan
Earnhardt Jr. is arguably the best plate driver in the sport today. He is in the best plate equipment on the track, and has the best plate racer ever as a teammate. Clearly, there are going to be higher expectations on Earnhardt this year now that he’s in his second year with Hendrick… but that pressure hasn’t picked up this early in the season. Junior started off the year with a strong showing in the Budweiser Shootout, leading the most laps and in position to move back to the front before he was caught up in someone else’s mess. Count on a strong finish this weekend from No. 88. – Mike
After his bonehead move early in the Bud Shootout that took out three fellow competitors, it may seem odd to start Robby Gordon this weekend. But the stats don’t lie… Gordon has finished in the top 15 in six consecutive points races at Daytona. Maybe the other Gordon is a smart owner and realizes the importance of running and finishing the 500 – or maybe he’s just lucky. Either way, he’ll likely be a fantasy steal this weekend. – Bryan
Mike Wallace is the best plate driver that casual fans have no knowledge of. He has raced his way into the 500 before, and won at Daytona in the Nationwide Series. The veteran is extremely knowledgeable on how to use the draft to his advantage, and can make an inferior car finish in its best possible position. Expect to see Wallace qualify in through the Duel and post a solid finish in the big race. – Mike
The Final Word
The 2009 Daytona 500 will likely very much resemble the 2008 edition… 400 miles of calm before what will likely be the most exciting 40 laps of the season. The usual suspects will be at the front come the race to the checkers, but after seeing Stewart nearly steal the Bud Shootout and the general looseness of both Smoke and Newman all throughout Speedweeks, my money is on Stewart-Haas Racing to make some serious noise come Sunday. – Bryan
After having run the new car design on the plate tracks last year, the teams have now figured out how to make it faster and handle better. While the track surface has aged another year and the abrasiveness is taking more of a toll on the tires, handling is going to be at a premium this weekend at Daytona. Expect to see the teams that were strong on plate tracks last year be near the front again this year. The Gibbs and Hendrick cars will be in contention most of the day, and the Childress cars can never be counted out on a plate track.
And don’t forget about Penske Racing’s Dodges either – they race fast even though they qualify poorly. One thing’s for sure; if the Shootout is any indicator of the way the race will be run, the last 100 miles will be completely out of control. – Mike
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