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Daytona preview: Danica Patrick poised for win

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Look for a thrilling late duel to the checkers from Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth at Daytona.

She was different back then, on that cool and gray February afternoon in Daytona. As Danica Patrick race-walked toward her green No. 10 Chevy parked on pit road -- she was always moving at a fast clip during Speedweeks, both on and off the track -- she possessed an air of confidence, a genuine belief that the Daytona 500 was her race to win.

She had won the pole and consistently been at or near the top of the speed chart during practice sessions. It appeared that she had a mechanical advantage over the majority of the field. Once the race started, she led five laps -- becoming the first woman in history to pace the field in the Daytona 500 -- and stayed near the front of the pack, running most of the race in third place. As the laps wound down, for the first time in the 55 years of NASCAR's most storied race, a female had a legitimate shot at winning.

Alas, on the final lap, Patrick lost the draft and finished eighth. Still, it was a wildly impressive performance for the rookie driver. "Danica is going to make a lot of history all year long," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the race. "It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress."

Sixteen races later, there hasn't been a lot of progression for Patrick. She's failed to finish in the top 10 since Daytona and she's wound up 20th or worse 14 times. She's fallen to 27th in the standings and struggled so much that the confidence she displayed on the track in February has eroded. Kyle Petty, a former NASCAR driver and current announcer for Speed and TNT, recently blasted Patrick, saying she "is still not a race car driver and I don't think she's ever going to be a race car driver."

In my view that was an unwarranted -- and simply untrue -- assertion. Anyone who can finish third in the Indy 500 (which Patrick did in 2009) and eighth in the Daytona 500 qualifies as a race car driver in my book. It's also important to remember that Patrick's entire team, Stewart-Haas Racing, has struggled with the aerodynamics of its cars all season. Patrick is only ten positions behind Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, in the standings.

Yet I think Patrick will be very, very quick on Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Though she crashed her primary restrictor-plate car at Talladega in May, her team believes their secondary speedway car is equally as fast. And the restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega are often more about the quality of the car than the quality of the driver, which levels the playing field and frequently spawns upset winners. It says here Saturday night will be one of the most memorable evenings in NASCAR history:

Danica Patrick will win this race.

Here are four other drivers to watch in race No. 18 of 2013, which officially marks the midway point of the Sprint Cup season:

ANDERSON: Midseason team grades

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In seven of his last starts at Daytona, Earnhardt has finished second three times, including in this year's 500. He hasn't won at the 2.5-mile tri-oval since 2004, but he's had more near misses than any other driver.

I've had many conversations with Earnhardt over the years about Daytona -- the site of where his father lost his life in 2001 -- and Junior genuinely views this track as one of the most special places on the planet. Perhaps that's why he routinely makes a late-race charge, filled with daring passes and hard-to-believe, video-game worthy moves. Expect him to run with the leaders all night.

2. Jimmie Johnson

Johnson, the points leader and overwhelming favorite to win the championship, is typically hit or miss at Daytona. He won the 500 in February, but prior to that he'd crashed in three of his previous five starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

In the last five races, Johnson has arguably had the fastest car three times. He led over 100 laps at Dover, Pocono and Kentucky. Clearly, this team is hitting on all cylinders right now. If Johnson doesn't get caught up in the Big One -- the multi-car crashes that Daytona is famous for producing -- he should be a contender as the laps wind down.

3. Kevin Harvick

Harvick dominated the early part of Speedweeks at Daytona in February, winning the preseason Sprint Unlimited and then taking the checkered flag in his qualifying race. He had hoped to become the first driver in history to win all three races in Speedweeks, but then he wrecked early in the 500 and finished 42nd.

So Harvick is due a dose of racing luck on Saturday night. He has two career wins at Daytona in 24 starts and is widely regarded as one of the top plate racers in the sport, which is fitting. He drives Dale Earnhardt's old car, and there's just something about this 2.5-mile track that often brings out the best in Harvick and his team.

4. Matt Kenseth

After taking the checkered flag last Sunday at Kentucky Speedway, Kenseth now leads the Cup series with four victories. This means that if the Chase started today, Kenseth would be first in the standings by virtue of the bonus points drivers earn for wins that carry over into the playoffs.

Kenseth should be fast on Saturday. In his last five starts at Daytona, he has one win and three top-five finishes. Look for him to run wheel-to-wheel with a certain female driver as they charge toward the checkered flag coming out of Turn 4 for the final time on Saturday night.

But Patrick will win by a nose.

SI Now: Ashley Freiberg on her racing idols
On Wednesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated's Matt Bean sits down with professional race car driver Ashley Freiberg to talk about her racing idols, including Danica Patrick.
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