Saturday, February 22, 2014

Can Denny Hamlin carry momentum into Daytona 500 win?

Can Denny Hamlin emerge as victor among huge pool of viable candidates
LAS VEGAS – In sports, you always read the cliché about a sub-.500 team that won its last game of the regular season and says it's "going to carry that momentum over into next season.” Most of the time, the carryover never really comes to fruition.

But in Denny Hamlin’s case, he really is living the cliché -- maybe more than any driver in NASCAR history to utter those words. He’s on the verge of completing the Daytona triple -- winning the Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel and Daytona 500 in the same year, something no driver has done since the track opened in 1959.

Hamlin’s 2013 season couldn’t have gone worse. It was easily the most frustrating year of his stellar career. He missed races for the first time because of a back injury sustained during a wreck at California Speedway, and then his team struggled as the manufacturer started to use his car as a guinea pig in 2014 test mode. But in the final race of the season at Homestead, Hamlin got the good stuff and led five times for 72 laps to capture the checkers.

At the time, it had to feel like the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders. He could finally exhale, as 2013 wouldn’t be the season where he didn’t win at least one race, something he had done in each of his eight seasons on the Cup circuit. It was also a time where “momentum” and “carryover” were appropriate terms. But this really is some crazy momentum, perhaps the new definition of it.

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Here in Las Vegas, the Hamlin fever has caught on a little bit for those looking to find the best number on what looks to be the best car, but the LVH Super Book still shows him as a winner for the house.

“We’ve got Hamlin down to 10-to-1,” said Super Book manager Ed Salmons, who opened Hamlin at 15-to-1. “He looks great, but there’s so many different things that can happen in restrictor-plate racing that the best car doesn’t always win. Last year we saw this same thing happen, and they [Joe Gibbs Racing] didn’t win any of the plate races. In fact, a couple blew engines, and that‘s part of it. Anything can happen.”

Kyle Busch and Kenseth both blew engines in last year's Daytona 500. Hamlin finished 11th. Busch, a native of Las Vegas, is set at 10 to-1 and is a driver that Salmons expected more out of. “I really thought because of Kyle’s driving style that he would have won a Daytona 500 by now.”

Tony Stewart (12/1) has also never won a Daytona 500, and this will be his 16th career start, but Salmons doesn’t think Sunday will be his first victory. “I just don’t see it because he’s coming off the leg injury. I think he’ll slowly ease himself into a comfort zone, which may take a few weeks.”

If Stewart is within the top 10 on the last two laps, his comfort zone could change in a hurry. The discomfort in his leg could be overtaken by the competitive rush he feels if he has a chance to win.

Only 29 drivers participated in the final practice session Friday morning where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (40/1) was fastest. Fourteen teams passed for fear of wrecking their primary car, but Salmons thinks they missed a golden opportunity despite the dangers.

“I like what I heard Steve Letarte (No. 88 crew chief) talk about ’running Dale Jr. hard today because it was their only chance to prepare under the same conditions of race day,' and it’s a great point. The previous practices and racing [during speedweeks] was done at night, and there is no way everyone can have everything they need without practicing in the same climate.”

Earnhardt Jr. (10/1), who finished 13th in the Friday session, is one of a few drivers the LVH is long on heading into the weekend, when most of the action will come. Jimmie Johnson and Paul Menard are others. “I don’t know what the Menard bet was all about,” Salmons said, half chuckling about the large wager on Menard at 60-to-1. But this is Daytona, and anything can happen.

Earnhardt Jr. will be looking for his first Daytona 500 win since 2004. His 12.9 average finish since then is tops among all drivers, and it includes runner-up in three of the past four Daytona 500’s. He is our choice to win on Sunday, but factoring in recent Daytona history and what the Gibbs' cars have shown again, Kenseth, Hamlin and Busch also have to be considered favorites.

Kevin Harvick (10/1), who won the 2007 Daytona 500, comes in as our second-rated driver out of pure respect for his game in restrictor-plate races. His week of runs driving a new car with Stewart-Haas Racing only enhanced his rating.

Remember, up to 35 drivers have a legitimate shot to win Sunday, so there are really no bad selections. It's as about random as as it gets in NASCAR, and because of that, we say just roll the dice and see what happens. Best of all, NASCAR is finally back.

Read More Here.......Final Daytona 500 Driver Ratings

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