Friday, July 2, 2010

New Spoiler, More Horsepower and a Slick Track Should Create Lots of Fireworks at Daytona

By Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Normally, it’s wise to break down what happened during the final practice sessions to get the best read on who the best candidates are to do well for each NASCAR Sprint Cup race. This week at Daytona, the practice times should garner only a small glance. Throw the time sheets out the window -- they’re irrelevant and have little bearing on what will happen in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400.

In four of the 36 races a year, the practice times are of little use in handicapping and that’s because the two races each at Daytona and Talladega use restrictor plates. The plates change the handicapping equation because it takes away much of the advantage that some of the top teams have week to week due of the volatile nature of this track.

The aerodynamics of the draft are everything on the 2.5-mile high banked track of Daytona and depending when, where and who a driver drafts with while they’re bunched up determines each cars individual speed. Just about anyone can have the fastest lap if they’re hooked up with the right group of cars and there was no better example than Thursday’s happy hour when Robby Gordon, who is 32nd in points, had the fastest lap of the day.

So where does that leave us and what formula should be used to sift through all the drivers to find the top candidates to win Saturday?

The best thing to do is go back and look at what happened in the Daytona 500 from February and then mix in a little Talladega from April. Even though Talladega and Daytona both use restrictor plates, they are vastly different from the standpoint that Daytona requires a car that handles very well while at Talladega, handling is of little concern and drivers can just mash the pedal and drive. However, Talladega’s reference of help this week is enhanced more than ever just because of the information gained by teams from the new spoiler.

This will be the first race run at Daytona with the new spoiler which looks to be giving the cars more grip in the turns with more drag on the straight-aways. It’s quite possible that we’ll see more of the sling shot moves coming off of turns like we used to see from the good old days of stock car racing, and similar to what we saw Kevin Harvick do to Jamie McMurray on the last turn at Talladega this year.

This week will also feature slightly larger holes in the restrictor plates which will drastically change the throttle response of what every driver on tour has been used to while driving in the Cup series. The driver will no longer feel like they’re driving a Yugo on an inclined highway. The larger holes in the plate is expected to give about 40 more horse power to each car.

There was no more evidence needed to show just how different a feel the cars were for the drivers than watching several of them wreck during Thursday‘s practices. At least seven drivers will be forced to use their back-ups with a few others having minor damages.

If looking at what happened at Daytona and Talladega already this season, you’ll see there are several drivers who did well in each. Of the top-15 finishers at Daytona, 10 of those finished in the top-15 at Talladega which is a very strong correlation. One of the drivers who dominated at Talladega didn‘t even make the list. Jeff Burton finished 11th at Daytona and led the most laps at Talladega but was involved in a late accident.

The two major surprises who didn’t make either top-15 list were Hendrick teammates, and rivals, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson which comes as a major shock just because of how dominating they were in restrictor plate races just three seasons ago. Gordon has six wins at Daytona while Johnson captured two plate wins in 2006, including the Daytona 500.

What is surprising about the Gordon and Johnson teams not faring well in these type of races this season is that their winless teammates, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr, have done just the opposite. Martin and Earnhardt Jr. both are drivers that finished in the top-15 for both plates races this year. Earnhardt Jr almost ended a horrendous winless slump by parting the seas of the draft to a runner-up finish at Daytona while Martin had a strong fifth-place run at Talladega. The two drivers share a garage at the Hendrick facility and it’s apparent that they are much better than the Gordon and Johnson teams in plate races, but would likely trade their success in these races for some of the good info in the 32 other races like their teammates have.

Earnhardt Jr is only three points out of the 12th and final position for the chase -- with nine races to go -- and he’s coming into this race with his best successions of runs this season having finished 11th or better in the last three. Look for Junior’s focus to be better than ever for this race as looks at the larger picture, while also trying to end his two year winless streak.

The two drivers who look to be the ones to beat are the ones that have dominated both plate races this year. Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 and finished runner-up at Talladega, while Kevin Harvick led the most laps at Daytona and won at Talladega. Harvick also won this years Bud Shootout and was nipped at the line at one of the Gatorade qualifying races at Daytona.

The teammates of Harvick and McMurray have also been pretty solid as well with Clint Bowyer and Juan Montoya also finishing in the top-15 of both. Montoya finished third at Talladega and has learned the difficult nuances of how the air works in the draft rather quickly.

Kyle Busch led at both plate races this season and also finished in the top-15 of both. He has arguably had the best plate car on the circuit since he’s been affiliated with Joe Gibbs beginning in 2008, the year he won at both Daytona and Talladega. Last season in this race, it looked like his race to lose and he did. He battled back to nearly catch Tony Stewart close to the finish line, created contact, and got sent spinning into the wall taking away what would have been a solid second-place finish and turned it into 14th-place.

Tony Stewart has always been known as one of the best plate drivers and has won the summer Daytona race three times, but hasn’t had any success this season with the plates on. The question with Stewart this week is if you want to doubt him, because he is currently on a tear. June has always his best month where he makes his real push for the Championship. In his last four races he has had three top-five finishes with the other being a ninth-place run at Sonoma.

Roush-Fenway Racing has won two of the last six Daytona races and have been more competitive than ever over the last four seasons of plate racing. Carl Edwards is one of the drivers to have top-15 finishes in both plate races this season, but the driver look at this week from the Roush stable is Greg Biffle who will be using the same chassis that led 27 laps and finished third in the Daytona 500. Also, Biffle won for the first time in his career at this race back in 2003.

All eight Ford’s from the Roush and Petty organizations will be running the new FR-9 engine as they did at Talladega. There has been some reluctance in using the engine, especially after watching Kasey Kahne’s engine blow up last week during a great run, but they should be fine with the restrictor-plates on.

Michael Waltrip Racing has two drivers that both finished within the top-15 in each plate race this season. David Reutimann and Martin Truex Jr finished fifth and sixth respectively in the Daytona 500 and then 14th and 12th at Talladega in April. It should come as no surprise that Waltrip would look to have an emphasis put on his restrictor-plate program since those were the only tracks he ever won on during his own career.

A lot a crazy and wild things can happen in plate races which is why match-ups bettors in Las Vegas shy away from wagering on the driver vs. driver two-way option and focus more on odds to win. When betting match-ups, players like to bet with consistent drivers, but that strategy is thrown out the window here because your driver with the best car can be wiped out more so than any other without his own doing which throws out the handicappers edge.

With all the changes in the cars and the drivers not being fully comfortable with those changes, there are bound to be more cautions than usual. It wouldn’t be a shock to see a long shot win this race just because there might be a shortage of cars on the lead lap. Expect a lot of wrecks followed by all kinds of fireworks after the race as there are sure to be a few drivers upset.

Have a great Independence Day and good luck in the race!

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