February 12, 2010

This year we're going to run the Fantasy Column a little differently. We're dividing drivers into two categories: A drivers and B drivers. (LIST BELOW AT END) Each week we'll pick three favored drivers from each category, 1-2 drivers to avoid and make a prediction as to who will sip the Victory Lane champagne.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of the Daytona 500 as a standalone race.

Rarely do sporting occasions deserve such lofty monikers, but there is something completely appropriate about calling the 500 the Great American Race -- a term coined by then-CBS NASCAR commentator Ken Squier. But as Denny Hamlin pointed out earlier this week: "Daytona means nothing as far as the season is concerned. We've seen that in years past. The top 5 typically finishing [there] are not your typical top 5 week-in and week-out." So from a fantasy perspective, picking your first lineup of the season can be something of a frustrating affair.

What is for sure, however, is that winning the 500 can cement your NASCAR legacy. On the back of one much-hyped 200-lap race, entire careers are forever immortalized. Winning a Cup title is the long-term goal of every aspiring Cup driver, but hoisting the 50-pound Harley J. Earl Trophy above your head in Victory Lane at Daytona is the next best thing. It's a feeling only 33 drivers have ever had, and there's no race the 43 in this year's field want to win more.

Tony Stewart: The second-year owner-driver is desperate to capture a maiden Daytona 500 -- essentially the only major omission on his glittering NASCAR resume. Smoke has won four of the last five February Nationwide races and three July Cup races at the famous old track, but he's never taken home the big prize. He even took the white flag in first place in 2008 but erstwhile rival, now teammate Ryan Newman got a great push from Kurt Busch, catapulting him past Stewart and on to the checkered flag. Some of the very best drivers waited decades to win a 500, and other future Hall of Famers never managed it. But after 11 years of frustration in the Great American Race, this might just be the year that Tony Stewart finally makes the breakthrough.

By the numbers: Stewart finished second in the second Gatorade Duel by a razor thin margin of just 0.14 seconds.

Matt Kenseth: Winning the 500 is rarely a pre-cursor to sustained success over the long NASCAR season as Kurt Smith points out, and picking up back-to-back victories is equally rare. The defending champ missed the Chase last season after starting off in the best possible manner, leaving the '03 champ with the worst season since his rookie year of 2000. But while he won't be a "trendy" pick to win again, he'll likely run well and be in a position come the denouement of NASCAR's biggest race. Sporting new colors -- Crown Royal -- this year, after a long-term partnership with DeWalt Tools ended, Kenseth will look to kick off the new deal in the best possible fashion. Don't rule him out this Sunday.

By the numbers: In 12 years of Cup racing, Kenseth has run a grand total of 103,981 laps. Sunday's race will be his 365th race at the highest echelon.

Kyle Busch: Newly engaged, Kyle Busch had a trying season in 2009, despite the early promise and the four victories. Missing the Chase was symptomatic of his "feast or famine" efforts, running well one week and horribly the next. In the season-opener last year, Busch arguably had the car to beat before he was swept away in a wreck where he was an innocent victim. Always a threat on the high banks, expect Kyle to run up front in typical inimitable fashion, and quite possibly start the season with a win.

By the numbers: Kyle has a highest finish of fourth in his five previous attempts at the Daytona 500.

Two to avoid:

Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin: The trendy preseason pick as driver most likely to dethrone the four-time Champ, Hamlin tends to run well at restrictor plate tracks but doesn't tend to finish well -- likewise, Martin. Regardless of where they finish Sunday, though, both will mount serious and sustained runs at a first Cup championship.

Kevin Harvick: "Happy" knows all about winning the biggest race of them all, pipping Mark Martin by a hair's breadth in 2007 in a spectacular finish to a dramatic race. He's won back-to-back Budweiser Shootouts, but hasn't been back to Victory Lane in a points paying-race since -- a spell that stretches back 107 races. Harvick has looked racy all Speedweeks and has proved, over his career, to be a master of the dark art of restrictor plate racing. Can he win a second 500? Certainly. The more important long-term question for Harvick, however, is where he calls home in 2010.

By the numbers: Harvick finished second behind Matt Kenseth this time last year.

Dale Earnhardt: The seven-time most popular driver needs a big year -- just in case you'd missed it, he kinda sucked in 2009. Always a sentimental favorite in the race that tragically claimed his father's life, the packed Daytona grandstands will be chock-full of No. 88 fans roaring on their hero. A win in the 500 may have little to do with how he'll run on the more important cookie-cutter mile and a half tracks, but it would be a massive adrenaline boost for the struggling driver and, candidly, the entire sport.

By the numbers: Junior won, to date, his only Daytona 500 in 2004

David Ragan: It's an important season for Ragan. Last year didn't exactly go down as predicted, with just two top-10 efforts and a 27th-place overall finish. Heading into his fourth full season, Ragan needs to replicate his 2008 numbers and challenge for the Chase -- especially to justify the faith his owner showed when jettisoning Jamie McMurray instead of the Unadilla, Ga. native. With a fifth place finish in 2009 and a sixth place effort in 2007, Ragan has proved his mettle on the high banks. He might just surprise everyone on Sunday.

By the numbers: Ragan has 8 top 5 and 19 top-10 finishes in the 110 Sprint Cup races he's run.

Who'll win? I'm plumping for Kyle Busch this week. And if he does win, I'm going to make the bold and fearless prediction that he treats the famous old trophy with more than just a modicum of respect.

Next Up: Fontana.

With the ballyhoo and hype of the biggest race of them all in the rear-view mirror, teams will held to Fontana knowing results there will play a far bigger role in the season -- and indeed, the race for the Chase.


K. Busch, M.Martin, K.Kahne, D.Hamlin, T.Stewart, G.Biffle M.Kenseth, J.Gordon, R.Newman, J.Montoya J.Johnson, B.Vickers, C.Edwards


Reutimann, McMurray, Ragan, Gordon, Keselowski, Papis, Sadler, Logano, Elliott, Said, Harvick, Burton, Bowyer Andretti, Bliss, Conway, Gilliland, lmendinger, Cook, Ambrose, McDowell, Truex Jr., Blaney, Labonte, Smith, Nemechek, Hornish Jr., S.Speed, Earnhardt Jr., Mears, Menard

You May Like