Sunday, February 17, 2008

It's time for the Big Show!

Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.... - Jim Morrison "The Lizard King"
Indeed, everybody is in for the Big Show, The Great American Stock Car Race (as opposed to The Great American Race, the Indianapolis 500), The Superbowl of Automobile Racing, a.k.a The Daytona 500 gets the green flag today.
Those of us who have loved racing for a long time understand the significance of the "most anticipated event in racing history." It is not only the first points race of the season, but is perhaps the most coveted victory by the drivers and teams for the entire season. It isn't just the trophy, nor is it the prize money; it is the opportunity to have your name written in history along with names like Lee Petty. Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts, Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt, and Jeff Gordon. Racers who win the Daytona 500 become household words for generations to come. A Daytona 500 victory is more important to most drivers than the Championship points Cup itself.
Add to all that the fact that this is the fiftieth anniversary of the all-important race, and a victory today becomes even more prestigious.
It is not easy to pick a winner of this race, in any year, but, this year especially, there are even more unknowns than there have been in years past. The restricter-plate, which causes the cars to run together in close packs throughout the race, has been the instigater of many a multiple car accident, but this year the effects of the horsepower limiting device are even more unpredictable.
First of all we have a new car that has different aerodynamic properties, and a higher center of gravity than the cars we have seen over the last twenty years or so. There has been a limited preview of what to expect from this car, in the Budweiser Shootout and the Gatorade Duels qualifying heats. The car seems racier than the old car, although the handling appears to be unstable. It seems that the new car can close faster on other cars, and actually has the ability to pass other cars without as much drafting help as the older cars needed. On the other hand, there seems to be more work that needs to be done to find a set up that will allow the car to turn, and not be so tough on the right side tires that tire wear becomes a factor in the survival of the car.
The bottom line is, when it comes to the new car, everybody is a rookie at Daytona.
It seems that, because the car is new, and everyone has about the same amount of experience in it, the best picks to win would be those who have superior car control abilities, and those who are the most adaptable from one type of car to the other. This makes picking a top five fairly easy, but, at the same time, clouds the outlook on who has the best chance to win.
The media is abuzz about Dale Earnhardt, Jr for good reason. He won the Bud Shootout, scoring his first victory in 66 races. He followed that up by winning the first heat of the Gatorade Duels, last Thursday, making it look easy, and racking up the most wins of any current driver in the CoT at Daytona. There is no doubt that he is excellent at car control, which makes him a favorite to win. A car control driver can always beat a driver who depends more on horsepower to get the job done. It doesn't hurt that Earnhardt is the most popular driver, being the favorite of nearly 2/3rds of all NASCAR fans who have a favorite driver. With luck as important as it is in restricter-plate races, all that positive energy has to be beneficial.
Speaking about positive energy, Tony Stewart is fresh from celebrating being the very first Nationwide Series race winner. Denny Hamlin won the second heat of the Gatorade Duels last Thursday, which happened to be Toyota's first Cup win, and Smoke finished second. Joe Gibbs Racing seems to be on a roll, and headed in a direction that will make domination by Hendrick Motorsports very tough indeed. With Coach Joe Gibbs back in the shop, the key phrase is "the team comes first." That could be seen by the exuberance with which the drivers congratulated each other after Hamlin's win, and the comradarie between Stewart and Kyle Busch after they raced one on one to the finish of the Nationwide race. If these three drivers hook up together for the 500, everybody else better watch out. I would at least expect Hamlin and Stewart to finish in the top five, but Kyle, with his all or nothing style, could actually find himself a winner. It just depends on how his luck runs.
That doesn't leave Jeff Gordon out of it. He had a near win in the second of the Gatorade Duels races, and it was only the cooperation of Stewart and Hamlin that beat him. Gordon is one of the smartest drivers out there, as well as one of the most experienced, and if he can find a way to be the first to cross the finish line, he will.
Those are my top five drivers for the Daytona 500, but because of the fact that there are always so many unknowns and unpredictables anybody who starts the race has a chance to win.
Dave Blaney, for instance, stayed with Stewart in the Bud Shootout for the entire race, and finished in the top ten. Again, he teamed up with Tony in the second Gatorade Duels race, and probably would have had another good finish if it weren't for his characteristic bad luck that brought about engine failure. He is a much better driver than his record shows, in my opinion, and with better equipment this year, he just might be a dark horse contender for a Daytona 500 win. Wouldn't that be something, to have his first career Cup win be at the Daytona 500.
I would also watch Brian Vickers, who came back from a spin and a bad pit stop in the first of Thursday's Gatorade Duels to race his way into qualifying for the 500. Now that he is in, he can be hell on wheels, and should be considered as another dark horse pick.
I should also say, don't count out any of the Ford teams. they might not have had the best practice or testing speeds, but they are racy and they include some of the best drivers in the sport. The same can be said for the three Richard Childress teams.
So, before I find it necessary to name every driver in the field, I better bring this to a close so it can be published before the race, which is only a matter of hours away as I write this, No matter who wins, I think we are in for a treat. If the races leading up to this one are any indication, we are going to see some of the best racing at Daytona we have seen since the introduction of the restricter plate. So, enjoy the race, because the best prediction one can make is, it is going to be a Race.

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