Daytona 500 Preview

[Russ Lake Photo]


by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

It’s the dawn of a new NASCAR Sprint Cup season and it kicks off in grand fashion Sunday afternoon with the Daytona 500, the most prestigious stock car race in the world.

On the heels of the passion, excitement, and drama of a memorable 2014 Sprint Cup campaign, the preliminary events of Speedweeks have so far shown us the 2015 season is set to begin right where last season left off. Already we have seen torn up race cars and post-race confrontations to go along with competitive racing and the always popular stories of small teams racing their way into the big show.

The Daytona 500 will be led to the green flag by veteran Jeff Gordon, making his final start in the “Great American Race” and he and the rest of the Sprint Cup cast are all back to get the 2015 season underway.

While the Daytona 500 is arguably the most unpredictable race on the schedule, here are some drivers we feel you should watch as the 57th edition of the Daytona 500 unfolds…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
Matt Kenseth has been on the money all week at Daytona beginning with a victory in the Sprint Unlimited Saturday night and continuing with strong runs in qualifying and practice. He led a majority of his Budweiser Duel before being freight-trained at the finish and has developed a knack for racing up front in restrictor plate events. After a winless 2015, Kenseth and the #20 team have come out of the box strong at Daytona and Kenseth’s consistent on track speed has shown everyone he is one of the top contenders on Sunday in search of his third Daytona 500 victory. Kenseth owns the second best driver rating on the restrictor plate tracks and he clocks in at 12-1 odds to win on Sunday. He’s smart enough to avoid trouble early and aggressive enough to charge at the finish when it counts the most. Look for Matt Kenseth at the front of the field on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (John Wiedemann)
Carl Edwards kicks off the 2015 season with a new team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Following former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, Edwards has made the jump to the coach’s team and Toyota. Kenseth had a great first season driving for JGR and I expect the same for Edwards. Could he be ending up Sunday’s raceday with a backflip at Daytona? I believe he will be solidly at the front of the pack and just may be surrounded by his three teammates. JGR struggled last season but looks to have bounced back. Time will tell but Edwards will definitely be one to watch, and his orange ride won’t be hard to spot at the front.

Greg Biffle (DM)
It may be surprising to some people, but Greg Biffle has been in contention to win the Daytona 500 in four out of the last five years, leading the event in the late stages only to come up short at the finish. Biffle is another driver with a sense for the front of the field in restrictor plate events and his 25-1 odds are reflective of the overall down year the Roush-Fenway Fords had a year ago. If Biffle’s #16 team and the rest of the Roush Fords have definitely turned the corner this year, Biffle looks to have the best shot at pulling off the Daytona 500 win. After coming so close the last few years and with his chances dwindling, the veteran driver knows he needs to take advantage of his opportunities now and Greg Biffle could surprise some people on Sunday.

Jeff Gordon (JW)
While many believe that Jeff Gordon’s winning of the pole position for his final Daytona 500 was engineered by NASCAR, it only takes a little time to look at what he did last season to see that he is not retiring because of loss of skill. Gordon will be tough all season long and his determination to finish his career strong will propel him to the front. Gordon is looking for Daytona 500 win number four and there is no doubt that he can achieve that on Sunday. Last season was a return of the Gordon from 15 years ago and, unfortunately for the competitors, that driver looks to return again this season. Gordon’s biggest competition may come from teammate Jimmie Johnson who is looking to recover from a disappointing 2014. Gordon won’t have to look far for his teammate, Johnson will start the race just to Gordon’s right. A one-two start for Hendrick Motorsports could finish up the same way.

Kyle Busch (DM)
Kyle Busch owns the best driver rating at the restrictor plate race tracks yet doesn’t have the results to go along with that honor. Busch is definitely aggressive enough to get to the front of the tight plate racing fields yet often times that aggression also ends up spelling disaster in the end. He tried the conservative approach at the last plate race at Talladega and still got caught up in a crash. Expect Busch to throw that conservative strategy out the window on Sunday and try to stay near the front of the field. If he can race the ‘ 500’ like he raced his Budweiser Duel qualifying race, Kyle Busch should be considered a favorite to win his first Daytona 500. He’s listed at 12-1 odds to win and should not be overlooked.

Tony Stewart (JW)
Tony Stewart has four wins at Daytona in the Sprint Cup Series, but none have been in the Daytona 500. He has been close and looked to have the winning car a number of times, but something always happened to snatch that victory away. You don’t need to be a NASCAR historical scholar to note that this story sounds like another great Daytona driver – Dale Earnhardt. This is the seventeenth Daytona 500 for Stewart and after two forgettable seasons a win on Sunday would be quite emotional for the driver of the #14. Stewart has had a solid Speedweeks so far where he ran up front in the Sprint Unlimited, finished in the top five in his Budweiser Duel and will start the Daytona 500 in the seventh position.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
If anything, the 2014 season anointed Brad Keselowski as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ newest ‘villian’ as he ruffled feathers of both fans and drivers on his way to a successful year. This season, Keselowski is back and seemingly ready to accept the role of the guy in the black hat, handling everything thrown at him in a cool manner with just a touch of cockiness. He backs up what he says and it was none more evident than at the last restrictor plate race when he stormed to the victory in a must-win situation. He has two plate wins at Talladega and while he has yet to find victory lane at Daytona, he did finish a strong third in last year’s Daytona 500. He is listed at 14-1 odds to win on Sunday and should be a thrill to watch coming from the back of the field as he sets after his first Daytona 500 victory.

Joey Logano (JW)
In 2011 and 2012, Joey Logano had two top five finishes and another top ten for Joe Gibbs Racing at Daytona. Since his switch to Team Penske, the results haven’t been there for Logano at Daytona but they have been pretty good everywhere else. While the plate races are not a good example on how good of a year a driver is having, Team Penske has great Fords and Logano just might drive his to victory on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney (DM)
Every year at Daytona, a long shot emerges as someone who is a relative newcomer with a strong chance to win the biggest race of the year. In my opinion, Ryan Blaney fits that bill this season as he makes his first start in the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers, the oldest continuing team on the circuit. This season the #21 Wood Brothers team has a strong alliance with the Penske teams for everything from technical help to crew members. The last time the Wood Brothers brought a rookie driver to Daytona was four years ago and they pulled off the upset win with Trevor Bayne. While Blaney checks in at 50-1 odds on Sunday, history could definitely repeat itself in the always unpredictable Daytona 500.

Regan Smith (JW)
My longshot pick is Regan Smith. Smith is a late replacement for Kurt Busch who was suspended Friday evening by NASCAR due to issues with a domestic violence case against him. Smith is no stranger to victory lane in restrictor plate races. An almost winner in the Cup Series at Talladega in 2008 (he was penalized for going below the yellow line to lead at the checkers), Smith has had finishes of 5th, 6th and 7th in his last three plate races in the top series. In the now named Xfinity Series, Smith has victories at both Talladega and Daytona. A win by Smith would be a huge boost for his career and the #41 Stewart-Haas team.

All those drivers plus current champion Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and more will give us lots to watch on Sunday.  We are just glad the season is starting.  Let’s go!  Mash the gas!


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