Thursday, February 23, 2012

Daytona 500 Preview: Gordon Could Be in Line for Fourth Win

By Micah Roberts

Kyle Busch is 10-to-1 co-favorite to win Daytona 500 (Getty)
Coming into last week’s Budweiser Shootout there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the garage area to how all of NASCAR’s rule changes would affect restrictor-plate racing as we’ve become to know it. The top priority: stopping two-car tandem racing. Mission accomplished!

In the process of taking away radio communication between drivers, using a smaller radiator and creating less rear down force with a smaller spoiler, the cars looked like they were racing on ice. Any car that got tapped in a bump draft on their right rear bumper, a practice commonly used well before the tandem racing came about, was sent sailing out of control. And with tandem racing gone, cars are now drawn into packs. When one car gets sent flying, it takes five to eight cars with it as well.

Perhaps this is what NASCAR wanted, or maybe not. Most NASCAR fans don’t like to an abundance of crashes, opting for strategy to play out while keeping all the good cars on the track. However, massive wrecks make for good TV and can bring in the fringe fan who might have blown away by the excitement of seeing Jeff Gordon’s car roll over eight times in highlights. Maybe that type of excitement captures a new audience, then TV Ratings go up, sponsorship dollars go up, which ultimately results in NASCAR’s upcoming TV contract going up.

Regardless of NASCAR’s motivation, the Daytona 500 has enough clout to carry itself on it’s own just because of the brand. This is NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the highest paying race of the season where everyone has the same amount points coming in and everyone has a chance to win. It was just last season that a rookie, Trevor Bayne, won and paid out odds at 100-to-1 at Las Vegas sports books.

This years race has another rookie, but not just your average kid coming out of now where rookie. No, this rookie has a massive following already and she’s been the story of speed weeks, even more so than all the changes NASCAR implemented. Danica Patrick makes her Sprint Cup debut this week on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

Danica Patrick makes Cup debut this week (Getty)
Patrick is making a bigger splash than when Dale Earnhardt Jr made his full-time Cup debut in the 2000 Daytona 500, and it's hard to remember anyone coming close to each of them in recent history. NASCAR couldn’t have had been handed a better marketing tool for their sport that crosses over into several different markets, age groups and genders. She’s a gorgeous woman who drives fast cars, what more could any regular guy want?

But Patrick isn’t just a pretty faced marketing scheme like we saw with Anna Kournikova in tennis, she’s a good driver who has shown vast improvements in her skills the last two seasons while driving part-time in NASCAR’s Nationwide series. She’s not the gimmick female driver making headlines because she’s the first or second woman to drive in the Daytona 500 -- she’s the third.

No, that‘s not her.

Patrick is as tenacious a driver as there is and as she gets more comfortable, we’ll see her go off on some guys who try to teach her some NASCAR 101. The biggest part of her maturation process comes from the equipment she’ll be driving. Unlike female drivers from the past, Patrick will have a ride and crew comparable to all the top teams. Her boss is last years Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart and her crew chief is Greg Zippadelli, who teamed with Stewart at Joe Gibbs racing for two season titles.

Now the question is, where will she finish Sunday? The LVH Super Book has her listed at 50-to-1, down from the opener of 100-to-1, showing just how popular she is already at the bet windows.

We know the magnitude of the race won’t affect her because she finished fourth in her first Indianapolis 500 in 2005 and her tentativeness in the race may work to her advantage. If she stays back out of trouble, she could avoid all the wrecks that are sure to come. In last week’s Bud Shootout, only 10 of the 25 drivers finished on the lead lap. Running three-wide in the lead pack resulted in bad news for most of the drivers.

Because of the equipment and leadership of Zippadelli, she’ll have a chance of staying on the lead lap all race which should result in at least a top-20 finish. What happens in the final 10 laps is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t count her out like many are quick to say.

That’s kind of the theme for this entire race: it’s anybody’s race to win. In this type of racing, especially with it being a new learning experience for everyone, you really can’t count anyone out which makes it the toughest race of the year to handicap.

Here’s a look at the top contenders:

Kyle Busch (10/1): His legendray status just went up a couple notches with his win in the Budweiser Shootout last week. After getting booed in pre-race ceremonies, even his biggest detractors had to roar with approval after his win, which shows how much he's truly respected. He saved his car on two separate occasions Saturday night that might have resulted in a lost day for other drivers, but to not only finish the race, but then win it? Are you kidding me....this guy is flat out awesome which makes some of us in Las Vegas very proud.

Now the question is whether he can win the Daytona 500. History says no. Only four drivers have won the Budweiser Shootout and Daytona 500 in the same year with the last coming in 2000 by Dale Jarret who was the only driver to do it twice. He had a great pre-season test at Daytona and showed Saturday that he has no problem racing on ice.

Gordon has looked strong throughout pre-season (Getty)
Jeff Gordon (12/1): He's one of the four drivers to win the Bud Shootout and Daytona 500 back-to-back, but that came in his glory years back in 1997. The thing Gordon has going for him is that this type of pack racing is a blast from the past where Gordon dominated plate races. No one in NASCAR has the type of restrictor-plate experience, or wins, Gordon has and he should move use that past experience to move in and out of the pack better than most in this one.

Kurt Busch (30/1): He may be from an underfunded team, but don't count him out. He was lurking in fourth position late in the Bud Shootout and looked poise to make a winning move before being taken out by the element of the race. He knows the plate races are his only chance to get a win this season and will do all he can to finally get a points-paying race win at Daytona. With the help of Hendrick powered motors and his experience, he'll be right there near the end.

Jamie McMurray (20/1): He looked to have the strongest car Saturday night with an ability to maneuver in and out of the packs better than everyone else. He's a past winner of the Daytona 500 and has had his best performances in plate races. McMurray may be the best value on the board.

Tony Stewart (12/1): He has 16 wins at Daytona, but still hasn't conquered the Daytona 500. The only thing missing from his racing resume is not winning the 500 which makes us remember the lengthy delay Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt went through before they finally won. Stewart didn't send Kyle Busch's bold late pass into the wall last week like he did two years ago when the young gun tried to take a points paying race from him, but if the same situation arises again, Stewart will do anything he can to win the race with little consideration of possible fines.

Top-5 Finish Position:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
2) #51 Kurt Busch (30/1)
3) #1 Jamie McMurray (20/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (12/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (10/1)

14) #10 Danica Patrick (50/1)

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