By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
Editor's note: The Sports Xchange is the only national wire service to provide a comprehensive preview of the Daytona 500 for the ever-growing world of fantasy racing fans.
Through a perverse quirk of fate, fantasy racing owners have to survive one of the most unpredictable events of the year to kick off their season.
That's fair enough, since the drivers and teams also have to endure the potential of numerous multi-car "Big One" wrecks, as well as the persnickety nature of the draft – and pray their engines will hold together for three hours at maximum output.
Very little is predictive when trying to handicap a race at Daytona. Practice times are essentially meaningless because drivers are only as fast as the pack they run with and the draft allows racers to come from the back to the front with ease so that where every driver qualifies and starts the race has little bearing on where they ultimately end up.
Certainly, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin were feel-good stories on Sunday when they set the two fastest laps in qualifying and locked down their spots on the front row of the Daytona 500. But fantasy owners need to look only as far back as last year to note that pole sitter Jimmie Johnson finished 27th and second-place qualifier Michael Waltrip wound up 29th. In 2006 both front row starters Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton also finished outside the top 25.
Yet, somehow the cream rises to the top.
In the first five years of his career (2002-2006), Johnson recorded only one finish outside the top 15 at Daytona (both in the 500 and the then-Pepsi 400) and only two results were worse than eighth. And in the 2006 Daytona 500, he started ninth and ultimately won.
From 2004 through 2006, Tony Stewart swept the top 10 with a worst finish of seventh – and back-to-back wins in the 2005 and 2006 Pepsi 400. Finishes like those require a healthy dose of skill and a great deal of luck.
Success predicts success, so the only thing fantasy owners should be concerned with entering the Great American Race is a driver's record at Daytona.
The racers with the hot hand at the moment happen to be a pair of brothers.
It took a while for Kyle Busch to get a hang of Daytona. Rookies don't typically run well on this track because veterans shy away from them in the draft and Kyle's freshman season featured a pair of 30-something results. He didn't immediately improve as two of his next three races ended in the 20s, but sandwiched between them was a precursor of things to come. Busch finished second in the 2006 Pepsi 400, which might have been considered a fluke if not for his last three results. He was second again in the 2007 Pepsi 400 and won the fourth of July classic last year after finishing fourth in the 2008 Daytona 500.
In fact, Kyle came close to winning last year's 500 until he was freight-trained by a pair of Penske pilots. With momentum on the outside, brother Kurt Busch pushed teammate Ryan Newman into the lead and those drivers swept across the finish line first and second. Kurt's second-place finish in this race is one of four results fourth or better in his last five Daytona attempts. One danger in starting the No. 2 Dodge, however, is that Kurt is an all-or-nothing driver. Since the start of the 2002 season, he has logged eight top-fives, but five of his remaining six starts have ended outside the top 30.
Conventional favorites like Stewart and Jeff Gordon cannot be overlooked, but they come with an asterisk.
In 2005, Gordon won the Daytona 500 and swept the top 10 at Daytona. The next year, he couldn't crack the top 25. In 2007, he swept the top 10 again, but last year his best result was 30th. If the pattern holds true, he is due for another strong result this year and after his performance in the this past Saturday's Bud Shootout (finished fourth) it's hard to discount him.
Starting at the back of the pack for that exhibition race, Gordon weaved his way through several wrecks that eliminated half of the field and the ability to avoid carnage is an essential part of a driver's success in restrictor plate races.
Stewart also served notice that his new ride from Stewart Haas Racing is just as good as the old one from Joe Gibbs Racing – at least on superspeedways. The restrictor plate is a big equalizer and any problems this new team will have dialing in the handling of its cars likely won't be obvious until next week when the field rolls onto the unrestricted, intermediate Auto Club Speedway – which means this is your best chance to start Smoke as a fantasy pick early in the year. He hasn't been bulletproof in the last few seasons with three bad results in his last four Daytona efforts, but eight of his last 12 races there have been top-10s.
When one thinks of Daytona, winners tend to come to mind. Dominators like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Kyle Busch will headline most of your competitor's rosters, but success will come in managing the middle of the grid.
The former Gillett-Evernham Motorsports (now Richard Petty Motorsports) teammates are certainly not the first drivers most fantasy racing players consider on a weekly basis, but they have been remarkably consistent at Daytona. Kasey Kahne enters the weekend with a four-race streak of results either seventh or ninth.
Teammate Elliott Sadler has struggled in the last two July races on this 2.5-mile showcase of speed, but he tends to step up his effort in the marquee Daytona 500 with three consecutive results of fourth or sixth. Consistency like that gives teams a great set of notes from which to work and should raise eyebrows among fantasy players.
Another driver who often flies under the radar screen at Daytona is Robby Gordon. For a driver who cut his teeth in off-road competition, Gordon holds a steady wheel in the draft. He has not failed to finish among the top 15 on this track in the last three years and in 2007 he swept the top 10. Just in case that sounds like a fluke, last year he also finished 11th and eighth in the other two restrictor plate races at Talladega SuperSpeedway, and in 2006 he had a worst result of only 16th on these two courses.
The drivers who are happiest following Sunday's time trials are four who know they will race in the 500. Stewart's participation was never in doubt since he was the most recent past champion, but when Bill Elliott posted the fifth-fastest lap he became the best of the "go-or-go-home" drivers. That also locked Terry Labonte into the show, since he is the only other past champion in need of NASCAR's free pass. Experience counts on race day.
Travis Kvapil posted the second fastest time among those needing to qualify on speed and he, along with Stewart and Elliott raised their status to drivers to watch during the coming week.