By Jerry Bonkowski
The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- As the Daytona 500 kicks off its second half-century of racing, Sunday's 51st running of the Great American Race has so many compelling storylines that we could very well wind up with one of the more exciting races we've seen here in many a year.
We're coming off two thrilling finishes, with Kevin Harvick beating Mark Martin by a half-fender in 2007, and Kurt Busch pushing then-teammate Ryan Newman to victory in last year's 50th anniversary race, truly a finish for the ages.
But while most of the 160,000-plus fans who will attend Sunday's race hope for a thrilling finish, that proposition is not always a guarantee. Far too often, the 500 can quickly evolve from an exciting 200 mph chess game into a wreck-filled yawner over the course of its 200-lap length.
The high banks of the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway always promise thrills, excitement and action -- and Sunday's race should follow suit.
For now, let's break down Sunday's event and give you a preview of what's potentially to come:
Arguably the best restrictor plate track driver in the business is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's won five times at Talladega and twice at Daytona, including the 2004 Daytona 500.
As a result, Earnhardt is always a threat to win, no matter what position he starts the race from (he'll start 14th on Sunday).
From a popularity standpoint, an Earnhardt victory would be a huge boost to NASCAR's sagging fortunes over the last few years, particularly during the current economic crisis.
He has all the tools, the team, teammates and backing of Hendrick Motorsports to do it. Don't be surprised if he does, but there are 42 other drivers who feel they have just as good a chance as Earnhardt does.
Others may be picking Jimmie Johnson to win just because he's a past 500 winner (2006) and is looking to start his quest for a record-setting fourth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. Others may be leaning toward Carl Edwards, feeling that 2009 is his time to step out of Johnson's shadow and to start off with his first Daytona triumph.
Then there's the sentimental favorite, Mark Martin, looking for his first win in 25 career tries at the 500. Martin is kicking off a one-year return to full-time racing, hoping to finally earn the biggest thing that's eluded him during his Cup career: the championship.
Others might pick Jeff Gordon, who won the first of the Gatorade Twin 150 races on Thursday, his first visit to victory lane (although he didn't earn any points in this race) since October 2007 in Charlotte. You can also make a case for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, teammates at the all-new Stewart Haas Racing.
The Sports Xchange's pick to win: Kyle Busch. After winning the second Twin 150 on Thursday, it's very clear that Busch's winning mojo is back. Busch is a driver who is driven by having to prove himself. Last year, he wanted to prove Rick Hendrick made a huge mistake by releasing him. What happens? Busch wins eight Cup races and 21 overall (including Nationwide and Trucks series). This year, Busch's motivation is to prove that last year's implosion during the Chase -- and his disappointing 10th-place finish -- was a fluke.
He's out to win it all, and he starts with a win in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Keep your eyes on several drivers whom we feel can steal a victory if everything ends up in their favor. Watch for Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, in particular. Also keep your eye on pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr.
At the other end of the spectrum are the true underdogs, guys like Jeremy Mayfield, Scott Riggs and A.J. Allmendinger. Mayfield and Riggs didn't even have rides a month ago. Mayfield put together a small partnership, has less than 20 employees and volunteers helping him out, and has a major sponsor that he feels will be able to keep him racing all season. Of note is Mayfield's old-school approach: While his paid employees are getting decent salaries, he intends to reward them with up to 30 percent more from the purse of each race he qualifies for.
Riggs and crew chief-turned-team owner Tommy Baldwin Jr. formed their team a month ago and came to Daytona with virtually no sponsorship. But after qualifying for the 500 by racing their way in with a strong finish in the Twin 150s, not only do they have a spot in the race, they also picked up sponsorship that they hope will carry them through the first three races, if not more. Even with the bad economic times, if Riggs manages to come away with a top-10 finish in Sunday's race, don't be surprised if more companies step forward to sponsor a true rags-to-riches story.
ROOKIES TO WATCH:
Unlike past seasons when there were as many as six rookies competing in their first Daytona 500, this year's rookie class is small enough to fit in a phone booth.
Just Joey Logano of Joe Gibbs Racing and former Formula One driver Scott Speed of Red Bull Racing will battle for Rookie of the Year honors -- not only for the season but also for Sunday's race.
Logano is just 18 and considered a teen phenom, but Speed is more seasoned across numerous racing platforms. Don't be surprised if Logano, even though he wound up third in one of the twin 150s on Thursday, wrecks or is wrecked, while Speed comes away with a solid top-20 finish (providing he misses any and all wrecks).
HOW THE RACE PLAYS OUT IN THE FIRST 40 LAPS:
The first 40 laps set the tone for how the race plays out. If drivers are tentative and cautious, expect a clean race to that point with limited passing and just a general feeling out by the 43 drivers in the field.
But if there are wrecks in the first 40 laps, pit strategy becomes improvised and on the fly from that point on. And the more wrecks there are, the more pit stops follow -- potentially leaving the outcome to be heavily influenced by pit strategy. Also keep an eye on fuel mileage, a definite by-product if the race has few wrecks -- thus meaning fewer pit stops and more gambling on tire choices and mileage.
THE FINAL 10 LAPS:
This is where the race is won or lost, particularly in the final two or three laps. Who works best in the draft, who pushes whom (and who doesn't), who gets hung out of the draft and whether it becomes a finish of cooperation or every man for himself are all key storylines.
In last year's race, we saw Kurt Busch push then-teammate Ryan Newman to victory in a true display of selflessness and teamwork. At the same time, drivers for the Hendrick and Roush camps failed to help their teammates when it mattered most, and that's why they didn't reach victory lane and Newman did.
One other thing to watch for: The final 10 laps become nothing short of the biggest free-for-all in all of sports. Even though they've gone through an exhausting 190 laps beforehand, drivers must keep mentally sharp and focused. Even the slightest mistake can cause a massive wreck.
IMPORTANCE FOR TEAMS OUTSIDE OF THE TOP 35:
With the top 35 teams (by owner points from last season) locked into guaranteed starting spots in the first five races, a good finish in Daytona is crucial for teams that either didn't finish in the top 35 last season or those new teams that need to gain all the points they can, like Stewart, Newman, Mayfield, Riggs and others.
LAST, BUT NOT LEAST:
Rain is in the forecast, but Daytona seems to have some type of long-standing pact with the rain gods that dates back to the late Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.
Rain may impact the start of the race, leaving a green track with little rubber remaining on it, but once things dry up, we may very well see what the eventual race winner sees: sunny skies.
And for all you Earnhardt fans: Go Junior!