The newly repaved track at Daytona International Speedway has led to big changes to both style and speed. During the Budweiser Shootout, NASCAR's season-opening exhibition race, gone were the long packs of cars drafting inline. Instead, the field broke into pairs of drivers that worked together to form a two-car aerodynamic advantage that topped 200 mph.
In the past, the two-car breakaway has been successful but never for extended runs and in such high numbers. Officials are hoping some rule changes governing air intake and water temperature will reduce speeds in addition to limiting the prolonged two-car push. A new rule implemented for 2011: smaller restrictor plates, which means lower speeds. The pair of Gatorade Duel races on Thursday will show if those efforts are successful and offer fantasy owners some more insight into making selections.
Restrictor plate racing is a different style, so the results of the 53rd Daytona 500 this Sunday will help forecast the mid-April event at Talladega Superspeedway, the only other plate track on the schedule. There's also return trips to each venue to consider. Daytona holds the annual Independence Day weekend race while 'Dega gets a Chase event near Halloween.
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Length: 2.50 miles
Turns 1-4: 31 degrees
Front stretch: 18 degrees
Back stretch: 3 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Simply put, no driver was better than Harvick in the four restrictor plate races last season. He recorded a seventh-place result in last year's Daytona 500before winning at the site in July. At Talladega, Harvick recorded another win as well as a runner-up performance in the Chase. Expect Harvick to be among the most rostered drivers, but this is one instance where performance dictates owners go with the consensus.
Carl Edwards | No. 99 Aflac Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Since 2009, Edwards has held an average running position of 13th or better with more than 72 percent of laps run in the top 15 in four starts at Daytona. In that time, Edwards has put together three consecutive top-10s to give him five top-10s in his last seven starts, three of which came as top-fives. Edwards has yet to win at Daytona, but could be landing a third backflip in as many races, dating back to his red hot finish to 2010.
Kyle Busch | No. 18 M&M's Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Prior to crashing out of year's July event, the younger Busch sibling had nine straight starts at Daytona with an average running position of 11th or better, including four races in which he averaged fifth or better. Among active drivers, his career driver rating at the site is an impressive 99.0, good for second best. Busch hasn't always left Daytona with the finish his excellent loop data would suggest, but Rowdy is well worth the risk.
Clint Bowyer | No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
In last year's Daytona 500, Bowyer matched a career-best result at the site by finishing fourth. His average running position of sixth and 95.7 percent of laps in the top 15 set new personal bests. In 10 career starts at DIS, Bowyer has only finished outside of the top 10 on four occasions. His career average finish of 12.8, including 9.5 in the Daytona 500, is tops among active drivers in both categories. A middle-tier driver in most formats, Bowyer is a key staple to any lineup this week.
Kurt Busch | No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge | Penske Championship Racing
Last week's win in the Budweiser Shootout marked Busch's first victory at Daytona in any form on the Cup level. It's not from a lack of trying. Over his last nine DIS starts, Busch has five top-fives and seven top-10s. In the last three, his average running position has been 10th or better. Over his career, the elder Busch has finished as the runner-up in the Daytona 500 three times. He's already 1-for-1 in the new paint scheme, going for a deuce.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Last year, Montoya spent more than 83 percent of his laps in the top 15 during both events at DIS. His average running position in the Daytona 500 was a then career-best 11th, which he bested in July. If not for crashing in that one, Montoya would likely own five straight top-10s in plate races. At Talladega, he finished third in both races with similar average running position figures. DNFs were a major problem a year ago, but a JPM that stays in one piece figures to see a strong finish.
David Reutimann | No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota | Michael Waltrip Racing
In 2010, Reutimann was one of only two drivers to finish inside the top 15 in all four plate races. Furthermore, the double zero was a key bump-draft partner those events. In the Daytona 500, he finished a career-best fifth prior to finishing 11th in the July race, despite spending far more laps inside the top 15. Flying well under the radar, Reutimann is a prime sleeper selection as a rapidly improving plate racer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
NASCAR's most popular driver will be starting on the pole for the sport's biggest event. A year ago, Earnhardt started second and finished in the same position. In July, he finished fourth at DIS, the second of only three top-fives all year. The loop data behind those runs aren't very impressive, but Earnhardt has showed a knack for charging towards the front in crunch time. With teammate Jeff Gordon starting beside him, Earnhardt figures to lead the first few laps, especially with the planned silent tribute to his late farther on Lap 3. Leagues that reward bonus points for laps led make it easy to start Earnhardt despite his boom-or-bust nature.
Temper your expectations
Jimmie Johnson | No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
For much of his early career, Johnson was a very strong finisher at Daytona. However, after winning the 2006 edition of the Daytona 500, the reigning five-time champ has just two top-10 finishes at DIS in nine attempts. Last year was particularly rough, with DNFs in both races. In fact, Johnson managed to finish only one of the four plate races last year. Allocation owners will want to stash him away for next week's race at Phoenix International Raceway where Johnson owns the best average finish of any track.
Tony Stewart | No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing
After a stellar start as an owner/driver in 2009, Stewart hit a sophomore slump to start 2010. Plate races, in particular, were rough for him. In addition to being a non-factor at Talladega, Stewart finished 22nd and 25th at DIS despite good starting positions. While he has three career wins at the site, they have all come in the summer, when Smoke is typically on the rise.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.