Race Weekend Central

Finally, it’s time for Daytona predictions

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the newest feature in the Fronstretch Newsletter where Jeff Wolfe takes a look at your best bets when it comes to picking your fantasy racing teams. Each week, Jeff will have your top 5 best bets along with a bonus pick just in time to finalize your lineup and settle in for a weekend full of action.

The time has come–and not soon enough–for another NASCAR season to begin. Unlike most other sports, one of the largest events of the season also happens to be the first. But success in the season opener doesn’t always transfer to the remainder of the schedule. With that said, let’s take a look at Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race where anything can happen and a Cinderella story is just as likely as a veteran visit to victory lane. Because of the uncertainty in restrictor plate racing, you’d probably get results just as great if you pulled drivers out of a hat for your fantasy team, but there are still a few drivers that would be a smart pick.

Top 5 Picks

Tony Stewart – It’s hard to bet against the defending champion who finished runner-up to Kyle Busch last Saturday in the Shootout and headed to victory lane in his duel race. Despite having not won the big race, Stewart does boast three podium finishes in July at the 2.5-miles superspeedway.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – He hasn’t won since June of 2008 in Michigan, a stretch of 129 races. But Junior has a little more pep in his step and clearly exudes much more confidence at this early point in the season. A win would go a long way for NASCAR, his fans and even the driver, but a solid finish is just the start the Hendrick Motorsports driver needs–and can pull off–to get off on the right foot this season.

Kyle Busch – OK, I know he’s not great at plate tracks, but what he did in the Bud Shootout last week cannot be quickly forgotten. Maybe he finally has the patience to handle himself well enough to make it to the end–or maybe his sponsors and team owner have figured out the right way to reel him in a little. Either way, Busch is a solid pick for Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson – From getting knocked off of his throne after five consecutive championship, Johnson is out to prove something this season. Add in the likely penalty he’ll receive next week, and the driver of the No. 48 knows he needs to pull in an early points boost. And after his showing in the second Gatorade Duel race, Johnson will be around at the finish provided he can survive the first 497 miles.

Carl Edwards – Ford–and the Roush Fenway cars in particular–have shown some incredible speed already at Daytona. Add in a pole position and a victory by his teammate in the second Gatorade Duel, and you’ve got a recipe for confidence in the driver who finished runner-up in a tie for the championship last season. Though the early days in his career were marred with lackluster performances at the superspeedway, Edwards has finished outside the top 10 just once in his last five starts (last July), making him a strong candidate to visit victory lane.

Shoulda, Coulda Woulda, But Didn’t Pick: When it comes to Daytona, it’s difficult not to pick Jeff Gordon, but he just didn’t quite stand out as much as the top 5. But with that being said, Gordon’s uncanny ability to avoid wrecks–most of the time–at restrictor plate tracks makes him one of those drivers that can go either way when all is said and done Sunday.

Now for the season. The finish was one of the best in NASCAR history, if not the best, last year when Stewart edged Edwards in the final race for title. Here’s a look at who I think will be in the top 10 points this year.

1) Carl Edwards – He got too close and the team’s too good. They didn’t panic and make a bunch of changes. It will be his turn.

2) Kevin Harvick – He seems to have grown up a bit, so we’ll see. He and wife Delana are expecting their first child in July, and he sold his Nationwide team to focus on Sprint Cup racing.

3) Tony Stewart – A big deal was made of his crew chief change and rightfully so. It’s rare to win a title in anything then go about changing the leadership. But Stewart did that, even though he brought highly respected crew chief Steve Addington. They’ll still be good, but it will tough to win back-to-back titles.

4) Jimmie Johnson – OK, he should be ready to make another title run after having his five-year winning streak snapped last season. The looming penalty after Daytona won’t help, but remember he just needs to be in the top 10.

5) Dale Earnhardt Jr. – He made it into the Chase last year, so you pretty much have to pick him to make it again. But, he was never really a factor in the final 10 races. It remains to be seen if that will be the case this year.

6) Brad Keselowski – He showed he has the ability, now he just needs consistency. This could be the next step in his development and he may not be far away from making a serious run at the title.

7) Kyle Busch – We’ve seen how well he can do in regular season, but doing well in the Chase remains a bit of a mystery to him. Maybe the late season penalty where he had to sit out a Sprint Cup race made him think a little bit, or will make him think a little the next time he’s feeling a little impatient on the track. The Wild Thing is capable of running off a Stewart-like streak of winning five out of last 10. So, if just gets in, he’s got a shot.

8) Denny Hamlin – He got a top crew chief in Darian Grubb, so there’s really no excuse now. Grubb has proven he can excel under pressure. Hamlin has not, so maybe this is the right match.

9) Matt Kenseth – He’s proven he can be consistent. He just needs to go for the win a little more often. But that consistency makes him all but a lock to make a Chase. The fact he’s got sponsorship issues shows unfortunately, it’s not always about ability.

10. A.J. Allmendinger – His strong finish last year was overshadowed by Stewart, but Allmendinger has proven he not only belongs in NASCAR, but can compete with the best of them.

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