Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart lead a star-studded field
Kevin Harvick (ASP, Inc.)
A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.
Kevin Harvick has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. But he hasn’t been the week’s big story. Danica Patrick cornered the publicity market on Sunday, when she won the pole for the 500 and became the talk of American motorsports — or more accurately, the face that NASCAR’s marketing machine has been all-too-happy to advertise to the public.
“Can I win? Yeah, absolutely,” Patrick proclaimed. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation; I feel comfortable in the draft; speeds are not a problem.”
A bold statement indeed, if not a bit naïve.
Danica was not just a big story for nearly five days, she was the story, as rash claims and inflated tails of hope ran amok, the sport bathing itself in Danica-mania.
That said, it was only after Patrick was assured of the point that FOX sold out its commercial space for the 500, so from a financial standpoint at least, the hype is warranted.
The adoration tempered a bit on Thursday, when the Budweiser Duels set the field for Sunday’s race. Actual cars on the track, actual competition, and actual winners gave all a much-needed change of focus.
Meanwhile, traditional heavy-hitters have skirted under the radar, seemingly content to let a hungry media focus on the week’s trendy topic while they go about the business of figuring out a new car. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been as invisible as Dale Earnhardt Jr. can be. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin … nary a word. It took Brad Keselowski giving what NASCAR deemed a “we need to talk, son” interview with USA Today to get the defending champ some serious pub.
With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the engines fire at 1:19 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the prior week, the pomp and circumstance of a marketing-driven sport, will fall prey to the reality of performance.
The aforementioned Harvick has a sterling record thus far in 2013, though points aren’t paid until Sunday. Harvick has been the pied piper of the low groove that most have been unwilling (or unable) to utilize. He has dexterously maneuvered through the field on two occasions, finding the point and holding off all comers.
“I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car,” Harvick said after his Duel triumph. “Gil (Martin, crew chief) and I talked about what we thought we needed coming down here after the (January) test, went a particular direction. It's worked out for us.”
Don’t be misled — Harvick’s deftness in the draft has worked to his advantage, as well. And should again on Sunday. However, no driver has come to Daytona and pulled the trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 in the same season. But this team seems primed.
“You're going to have multiple pit stops and you're going to have to change fours tires at some particular point,” Harvick says. “You're going to see the field get mixed up because people are going to be on varying strategies.
Despite Harvick’s excellence, no driver is a more popular pick for Sunday than Tony Stewart.
Confident to the point that he sat out Happy Hour on Saturday, Stewart has displayed a calm swagger throughout Speedweeks even though he has yet to finish among the top 3 in … well, anything.
Still, his Stewart-Haas Racing team appear ahead of the curve with the new car, showing impressive speed. And apparently he’s found the feel.
“I’m really happy with my car,” Stewart said after Saturday’s second practice session. “I got out and looked at Steve Addington (crew chief) and he’s like, ‘I’m content if you are.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what else to ask for with the car.’
“It’s a good scenario — there’s not a scratch on it and it’s ready to race. It’s a position that I don’t know we’ve ever been in — I think we’ve always run final practice.”
Shut out in 14 attempts in the Daytona 500, Stewart hasn’t quite reached a Dale Earnhardt-esque frustration level, but at the moment, this race tops his career bucketlist.
The pieces are in place for a win, but the 500 is wrought with pitfalls.
Kenseth makes any list of favorites on his 2012 plate brilliance alone. The winner of two of the last four 500s, Joe Gibbs Racing’s heir to the coveted No. 20 averaged a 2.0-place finish on the plate tracks last season.
The Wisconsin native was racy in the Unlimited, leading 26 laps, and was running second late in his Duel before being shuffled to fifth at the finish. Kenseth’s big problem throughout Speedweeks hasn’t been speed or handling, but a lack of dancing partners. One would think with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch serving as teammates, he’d have plenty of help. But more often than not, he’s been the man overtaken with a lack of help than the driver doing the passing when the money’s been on the line.
Like Stewart, Kenseth passed on Happy Hour, which speaks to the strength and confidence of his bunch. Ever the silent assassin, this is the guy who could very well spoil Harvick’s and Stewart’s fun.
Kasey Kahne (ASP, Inc.)
Hendrick’s 5/24 Shop
Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have been the stronger of the two shops on the Hendrick campus during Speedweeks.
Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson have been working on speed and drivability throughout the week, and for as strong as they’ve been, aren’t 100 percent sure what to expect on Sunday. Still, they elected to skip Happy Hour — most likely because they wanted to dodge any potential bullets.
“How is your car leading, how is your car on the top; in the back? That’s what you have to work on,” Gustafson said. “We feel fairly comfortable but you can’t get it completely worked out until you get in the race.”
But have they found that “it”?
“We’re close,” said Gustafson. “It’s going to be a moving target — you still don’t know the weather conditions tomorrow or what situation you’ll be put in (on the track). But we have a very good opportunity to succeed.”
Kahne has been equally fast, and played the role of Gordon’s wingman well in the Duel. When Gordon was penalized for speeding, Kahne did the work himself, powering by a strong Kenseth to finish second.
“Our car has been pretty fast, but we’ve run in smaller packs in practice to not tear it up,” Kahne’s crew chief, Kenny Francis, said. “It’s harder to tell what you’ve got in those packs, but we’re happy with the way it ran in the 150, so we’re basing everything off that.”
Don’t let Gustafson or Francis fool you. The 24 is as strong at Daytona this season as it’s been in some time, and Kahne may have as much pure power as anyone.
Busch is a charger, which can work both to his advantage and his detriment on a plate track. And he just may have learned a thing or two by competing in the Truck Series race on Friday, in relation to putting runs together on the top and bottom lanes.
As for the car, crew chief Dave Rogers says, “Kyle’s really happy with his 500 car. We didn’t go out in Happy Hour because there was no reason to — not because we’re worried about tearing something up.”
Always the wild card, it is assured Busch will make his presence felt. Can he control the aggression that trips up so many at Daytona? If so, he’s in the conversation.
Who are the wildcard drivers who could win the 55th running of the Daytona 500?
The Daytona 500 is the Great American Race for a reason. Dreams are realized, careers are validated and history is made each and every season. For the 55th time in history, 43 cars will attempt to finish 200 laps around the 2.5-mile asphalt tri-oval called the Daytona International Speedway.
Sunday's Daytona 500, the 55th in the long, storied history of The Great American Race, officially has the field set. There are endless stories emanating from NASCAR's biggest event, but here are the five that will most impact Sunday's race.
No horsing around: Harvick is the favorite
There's just one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver batting 1.000 with trophies on the line in 2013: Kevin Harvick. Both of those trophies, of course, have come in the last week at Daytona where NASCAR's resident "lame duck" has scored impressive wins in the last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and the first race of Thursday's Budweiser Duel at Daytona.
But statistics aren't the only thing supporting Harvick's case as the head-turning favorite before Sunday's race. Instead, it's the manner in which Harvick has taken control at the end of both races and held on with the grip of a vice.
In the Sprint Unlimited, Harvick first moved to the lead on lap 34 of the 75-lap, three-segment race. Just twice, and for two total laps, did the No. 29 not cross the start-finish as the designated leader. And when the heat turned up on the final lap, Harvick was able to play both lanes and make a bold, sweeping block of Greg Biffle on the backstretch of the money lap. He wasn't pressured again before the checkered flag.
Thursday was much the same in his 150-mile qualifying race, except Harvick was better. A savvy move exiting pit road pinned Trevor Bayne — the only other driver to lead Duel No. 1 — against the infield grass and then behind him as the two rushed through the gears to get up to speed. Bayne never recovered and eventually ended up in a crash while Harvick maintained his position. Even the restart wasn't a hassle for the No. 29, as Harvick managed the high then low line to keep competitors at bay and the Budweiser victory lane bath in sight.
Afterward, many of his competitors noted handling played a huge role in their ability to challenge. Harvick seemed almost incredulous at the thought.
"We never experienced any of that," Harvick said. "I think it's a matter of how you came down here with the balance of your race car."
Translation: the No. 29 is good. You can bet the field has taken notice.
Follow the leader
One factor playing into Harvick's hand as he has dominated so far is the apparent advantage held by the leader in the Gen-6 chassis when drivers form the long, snake-like lines of cars. Just seven different drivers led in the qualifying races Thursday, with just four of them leading for more than one lap.
"It's hard to pass the leader," Kyle Busch said after winning the second Duel race. "Just stay out front when you can get out front and you can run pretty good and just try to hold everybody off behind you."
That showed on the final lap of Busch's race when Kasey Kahne, with a push from Austin Dillon, edged under Matt Kenseth in second but couldn't punch past Busch. Kahne never even got alongside Busch.
"It's really tough to pass. When another car gets near your rear tire, it's like you threw the parachute out," Jimmie Johnson said.
Harvick and Jeff Gordon said Daytona now requires more planning to make a pass for position — not just finding someone to push like the recent years of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks. The consequences can be dire.
"You've just got be precise in your moves," Harvick said. "If you get yourself in the wrong spot like we did at the beginning of the race in the middle, you just can't go anywhere. The only place you're going is backwards. It's hard to get yourself into the hole that you need when you make a mistake."
Gordon agreed, saying Daytona in 2013 feels like the Daytona of old.
"This is a real thinking race now. It comes down to the way it used to," Gordon said. "You get yourself in position. Everybody kind of rides, and thinks about what they have. You have to have your car handling pretty good, which is tough to do further back in traffic."
But Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, doesn't think passing the leader will be completely impossible come Sunday”
"You have got to have somebody go with you; you can't do it by yourself. But you can get a run, definitely. No doubt about it.”
Handling the unexpected
In order to get the kind of run Gordon is talking about, and to time it at the point where it'll put a driver in prime position to walk away with that coveted Harley J. Earl trophy, a driver has to first be in the position to make that move. In a 500-mile race, that's no easy feat.
No, the Daytona 500 isn't the same test of attrition that it once was. Parts last longer. Teams hit setups with more regularity. Drivers, typically, are smarter.
But 500 miles is still 500 miles — especially with a new car putting drivers more on the edge than they were with the stuck-to-the-track Car of Tomorrow chassis. Ryan Newman found that out during Wednesday's practice, and Denny Hamlin found it out late in the first qualifying race Thursday. Both suddenly lost control of race cars that weren't handling particularly poorly before they encountered a set of aerodynamic variables strong enough to send the car into a spin quicker than a blink of an eye. That will happen again Sunday and a driver (or drivers) in contention will pay the price.
It's a measure of the new car that has several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., searching for answers in the two days of practice left before the 500.
"I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(I) figured we would be fighting loose a little bit. We have to work on it."
Should drivers withstand that challenge, they'll have to be ready to execute flawless pit stops, too. Kyle Busch took the lead in the second qualifying race thanks to a call for no tires during his pit stop. Trevor Bayne lost his lead in the first race partially because he locked up his tires coming to pit road under green, necessitating a change. Busch wound up winning his qualifying race; Bayne wrecked.
"Pit crews are going to make a huge difference on Sunday," said Tony Stewart. "That's going to be the difference between which pack you come out in. You're going to have to have good stops to stay up there all day."
Like Gordon said, Sunday will feel more like Daytona of old. Carl Edwards, despite wrecking four times at Daytona, is looking forward to that.
"There will be groups of cars that separate themselves, some pit strategy and some guys that slide around and can't keep up," Edwards said. "I think it will make it a really dynamite, fun race."
Not everyone will leave Daytona Sunday night using the words Edwards did, but you can bet one of NASCAR's three competing manufacturers will be celebrating well into the night.
For the first time since the 1990s, cars in the Sprint Cup Series actually resemble their showroom counterparts. It's been a concerted effort by NASCAR, after pressure from those manufacturers, to make those comparisons easier.
It also introduces the realistic potential of Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota having a slight advantage come race day thanks to their body design. NASCAR has worked to prevent the issues, but competitors are competitors, and competitors like to complain.
Just look at the starting lineup for Sunday's race: seven of the top-10 are Chevrolets. If the finishing order resembles that, Jack Roush's comments won't be far behind.
Danica Patrick and crew chief Tony Gibson. (ASP, Inc.)
And of course, especially at the start, all eyes will be on the most historic moment Daytona has seen in years as Danica Patrick leads the field to green as the first woman to ever win the pole position of a Daytona 500 — or any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Patrick, 17th in her qualifying race, didn't do much to turn heads in the one dose of racing experience she's had at Daytona this year. Her team's goal Thursday was to play it conservative and finish with the green No. 10 intact.
Mission accomplished — even if Patrick didn't feel she gleaned much from the racing.
"I'll be really honest, I didn't feel like I got a lot of experience on how to pass or the draft so much. I was able to hang with the group," Patrick said.
Patrick and Co. were worried about the car being too loose during the race and tightened the car up more and more leading to Thursday's 150-miler. She did later confirm that turning 60 laps in race conditions did prove at least somewhat valuable.
"I guess I did learn that being too tight is pretty detrimental here," Patrick said. "If you can't keep your foot in it and run up behind cars, then you're going to struggle to make moves. It looks really hard to pass, to be honest."
Patrick, who crashed on lap two in her first Daytona 500 start one year ago, should drastically improve her showing this time around. Expecting a win, though, is way too much.
by Geoffrey Miller. Check back each Friday, as Geoffrey Miller examines the five storylines to watch entering each NASCAR weekend. And follow Geoffrey on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
The inaugural Daytona 500 was one of the strangest. Lee Petty ended up winning in a literal photo finish — but the decision wasn’t made until three days later. Johnny Beauchamp was originally flagged the winner, but Petty protested the outcome and after a review of fan photographs, press pics and grainy black and white video that made the Zapruder film look like Avatar, Bill France Sr. gave the win to the patriarch of NASCAR’s most famous racing family. Petty and Beauchamp didn’t fare so well a couple of years later at Daytona. In the qualifying races for the 1961 event, both were involved in an accident that launched their cars out of the track in Turn 4 and seriously injuring Petty. While he entered only six more races, his win in the first 500 held at Daytona International Speedway was fitting.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1988 — The Alabama Gang Takes Center Stage
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In the 1980s, there were a number of second- and third-generation drivers coming along, destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Larry Pearson, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett were all making an effort to live up to the family name. One stood above the rest, though, evident that he would be something special – Davey Allison, son of Hall of Famer Bobby. Davey won two races in his rookie season of 1987 — something that just wasn’t done by rookies in those days. In ’88, his Robert Yates-powered Havoline Thunderbird hung tight with his father’s Miller High Life Buick in the 500, but didn’t quite have enough to challenge him at the end. It was Bobby’s third 500 win, but his final victory in what would be an abbreviated season, as he nearly lost his life in a crash at Pocono just four months later. Sadly, due to the accident, Bobby has no memory of one of the most endearing finishes in NASCAR history.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1990 —Seagulls, Shrapnel … and who is Derrike Cope?
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Is it still paranoia if they really are out to get you? Dale Earnhardt had to be thinking that as he ran over a piece of Ricky Rudd’s shattered bell housing entering Turn 3 while leading the final lap of the Daytona 500. Having just missed the 1989 Winston Cup by 12 points to Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt had the Harley J. Earle Trophy locked up, despite having nailed a seagull at 195 mph on the backstretch early in the race, which was captured and replayed throughout the afternoon. PETA is still probably pissed about that one. Earnhardt, though, would have to wait eight years until the bad luck would cease to claim the one prize that had eluded him. Derrike Cope, in Bob Whitcomb’s No. 10 Purolator Chevy, kept himself in a position to win and did just that after Earnhardt blew a right rear tire on the final lap. This finish even catches the smooth-as-silk Ned Jarrett a little off guard, as he gets a little tongue-tied calling the pass for win.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1964 — All Hail the HEMI!
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There are three names that Mopar freaks hold in high regard: Richard Petty, Dick Landy and Tom Hoover. Hoover is known as the Grandfather of the 426 Hemi, which made its NASCAR debut in 1964 at the Daytona 500. To say they had the field covered was a bit of an understatement. Paul Goldsmith won the pole at a speed of 174.91mph — on tires carved from granite. Richard Petty started alongside on the front row and dominated the action in his Plymouth Belvedere. There were only six lead changes between Petty, Goldsmith, A.J. Foyt and Bobby Isaac, with Petty leading from lap 52 to the finish. Petty by a lap over runner-up Jimmy Pardue and two laps over Goldsmith, but all three drove ’64 Plymouths powered by the new elephant motor. NASCAR would ban the engine for ’65, leading Petty to sit out for a season. Imagine the win and title total had he not.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1981 – The King Wins on Strategy
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You could draw some similarities between the 1981 and 2013 NASCAR seasons. The former year witnessed a new, downsized body … and no one really knew what to expect from it. The Daytona 500 was actually the second race of the year at this time (the now-defunct Riverside road course hosted the first event of the year). Bobby Allison dominated the 500, leading 117 of the 200 laps, while briefly exchanging the lead with Ricky Rudd and Neil Bonnett. Richard Petty wasn’t even a factor – until it counted. Coming onto pit road with 27 laps remaining, Petty’s cousin, Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, made the audible call for two tires. It got Petty out far enough in front that he and his STP Buick led the final 26 circuits — the only laps he’d lead all day — and cruised to Victory Lane for his seventh and final Daytona 500 victory.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 2007 — You Can Race Back to the Yellow … Starting Now
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Back around the mid-late 2000’s, NASCAR attendance and ratings started to decline. It seemed the rules were constantly changing to fit the current circumstance, phantom yellows run amok, and a new points system was being rolled out every season. During the 2003 season, it was determined that there would no longer be racing back to the yellow flag when a caution came out. The field would be frozen and timing and scoring determined the winner. In his 23rd start, and first outside of the No. 6 Roush Ford since 1988, Mark Martin had things sewn up. He just had to make it through a Green White Checker restart, and he’d have quite the consolation prize for not having won a title in 20 years of trying. As the wreck starts, Martin has the lead over Harvick. He pulls down to avoid the side draft of Harvick, anticipating the yellow flag that never flew – despite cars being upside down, on fire, and flipping through the grass.
4. 1998 – “The Intimidator” Breaks Through
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“After 20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500!” A simply great call by Mike Joy in what he deemed, “the most anticipated moment in racing.” That sentiment was verified as every crewman from every team lined pit road to congratulate Earnhardt upon taking checkers. In watching the replay, Bobby Labonte started to make it a little more close than I remember, and if he had another lap, could have made things really interesting. All through Speedweeks, the parallels were drawn between John Elway, who finally won his first Super Bowl nearly a month earlier after so many devastating – and lopsided – loses, and Earnhardt, who was still looking for that elusive 500 win. A year removed from ending up on his lid on the last lap, but getting back in to finish the race, Earnhardt showed up at Daytona with a renewed determination and a new crew chief, having lured Larry McReynolds away from Robert Yates Racing and Ford. The ’98 version of the Daytona 500 was one of those races where everything just came together, nothing bad happened, and the guy you expected to win actually did.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1976– Pearson Outfoxes Petty
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It the mid- to late- '70s, the superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega were barnburners. You could count on one hand who was going to be factory: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough. The 1976 edition of the 500 was about as good as it gets, with Pearson and Petty sandbagging and sling-shotting during the final laps. The Silver Fox pulled a monster slide job going into Turn 3, but The King side-drafted through 4 and powered by on exit. Almost. As the two titans of the sport made contact and spun out of control, Pearson managed to kick in the clutch to keep the powerplant alive, while Petty’s went kaput. Pearson’s take? “The bitch wrecked me!” Note the wee Scott, three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart commentating. Perhaps Michael Schumacher would care to drop by the booth this weekend and offer his thoughts on the drivers “giving a maximum effort.”
by Vito Pugliese
2. 2001 – NASCAR’s Darkest Hour
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The 2001 Daytona 500 should have been the greatest ever. It marked the first race of NASCAR’s new multi-billion dollar TV package, while the roof-wicker aero-package was about the best NASCAR had put together — and a seven-time champ was back in form after a few lean years, having pulled off the greatest come-from-behind win in series history at the fall Talladega race in 2000. Headed into the final lap, Dale Earnhardt was watching the two cars he owned – those of Michael Waltrip, his longtime friend who was determined he reach his potential, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. We all know how it ends — the significance of Waltrip’s first Cup win in 462 starts, the tears and concern of a brother, friend and former rival in the broadcast booth — so we’ll not belabor the point. But if there is one saving grace from this event, it has been the constant focus and improvement on safety within the sport.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1979 – “The Great American Race” is Born
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“There’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers over-flowing, they’re angry, they know they have lost…” No surprise here, as the 1979 installment tops any and all Daytona 500 lists. Those immortal words from Ken Squier cemented the key event in the history of NASCAR, thrusting it from underground regional spectacle into full-blown national consciousness. Amazing how one man and three cameras can cover a race better than the army of aerial drones and three different studios can today. Aided by a blizzard in the Northeast, a post-race fight and Richard Petty breaking through (ending a winless drought from injuries and the disaster that was the Dodge Magnum), the ’79 race put the Daytona 500 on the map as a major sporting event and, as Petty has said many times, “took us from the Sports page to the front page.” Looks like a certain brunette from Roscoe, Ill., did the same, once again, this past weekend.
The theme of NASCAR Speedweeks in Daytona thus far?
New cars that do not line up square and are volatile in the draft; a supposed lack of quality body parts back at the team shops in North Carolina; valued information gleaned on specific cars that crew chiefs don’t want sacrificed.
For these reasons — and possibly because there’s no need to show one’s hand just yet — the action has been relatively staid at Daytona International Speedway.
In Thursday’s Budweiser Duel No. 1 — historically the crazier of the two — the much-ballyhooed No. 10 car of Danica Patrick led the field to green and, with teammate Tony Stewart, promptly drifted to the rear of the pack — part strategy play, part over-adjusted car.
Trevor Bayne inherited the lead and the field largely ran in formation in the high groove until lap 32 of 60, when Kevin Harvick led a train on the inside that propelled him to the lead with 14 laps to go. Like Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, when Harvick grabbed the point with 13 laps remaining en route to the win, it was a lead he would not relinquish.
He was forced to fight for it, though.
On lap 52, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota abruptly broke loose off of Turn 2 and collected Bayne, Carl Edwards and Regan Smith, setting up a four-lap dash when the green flag waved.
But with Jimmie Johnson planted on his bumper, Harvick held the lead, again utilizing the high groove after the restart. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya tried in vain to mount separate assaults, but as in Saturday’s event, the No. 29 Chevy was too strong out front.
“Today, both lines were side-by-side and you were able to kind of feed each line a little bit of air (while leading) and try to keep ’em even,” Harvick said. “That's the best way to keep them at bay is keep them side-by-side.
“If we can get to that point and be able to dictate whether you need to block, move up, move down, side draft … you have options as the leader. That's the position I want to be in.”
Harvick, for certain, looks strong. In his final year with Richard Childress Racing, he’s started the year off by leading 40 of 75 laps in the Unlimited and 23 on Thursday, making him a favorite entering Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll do his best to downplay it, though, knowing the unpredictable nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We've been fortunate to win the first two races of Speedweeks," Harvick said. "We just got to keep a level head on our shoulders, not get too high over what we've done, just do the same things that we've done. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. I think we definitely have the car and team to be in contention to do that.”
Kyle Busch celebrates Duel No. 2 win. (ASP, Inc.)
Duel No. 2 provided an even more docile 60-lapper. Jeff Gordon started on the pole and led the first 38 laps as the field, once again, largely flew in single-file formation.
However, a wacky round of pit stops on lap 39 shuffled the deck, as Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. It was a mistake from which he would not recover.
And that was when Kyle Busch took over.
Antsy running fourth prior to the stops and with no partner willing to work to make something happen, Busch’s crew chief obliged, making a call for no tires and a splash of fuel. That brief stint on pit road allowed the No. 18 Toyota to emerge second. When Gordon ducked to pit road to serve his penalty, the lead was handed to Busch — and that was that.
Busch led the final 19 laps, holding off a charging Kasey Kahne as teammate Matt Kenseth ran cover in the waning laps to capture the fourth starting spot for the 500.
“Our original plan was two tires, but he (crew chief Dave Rogers) called it,” Busch said. “They were just harping on me to make sure, don’t slide your tires. Because you don’t want to slide a left front (tire) and then have to take four.
“So, I felt like I got a really good pit road entry. I felt like I ran good pit road speed all of the way down pit road and getting into my box was great. The guys just filled the tank for five seconds. It’s all we needed and we ended up back here. We got out front where it mattered most and got teamed up with a couple of Toyota’s which was great."
So have the Unlimited or the Duels given any insight as to what Sunday’s 500-miler may provide? Possibly. Passing is at a premium, but it seems that if the race runs unimpeded for any number of laps, the giant packs of four-wide racing may not be as prominent. Drivers are complaining — quietly — that the Gen-6 cars are frightfully unstable in the draft and have them weary of taking unnecessary risks.
Therefore, the high groove acts as a cruising line of sorts, where drivers can click off laps. And with that in mind, the first half of the 500 may resemble Thursday’s Duels, as teams play it conservatively to be assured of simply seeing the finish.
Alternately, the low lane is a power groove to be utilized when it’s time to make a move. Harvick and Tony Stewart have demonstrated that a strong car can pull two or three others along if the drivers are willing to work together. If the Great American Race is to get crazy in the final laps, this is where the challenge will come.
And lastly, who are the favorites now that an exhibition race, pole day and two qualifying races are in the books? Harvick, obviously, has made the biggest statement with two wins in two races. And Biffle, with two runner-up showings in two starts, can’t be overlooked.
Neither can Stewart, whose name has been on most everyone’s lips in the garage since the Unlimited. And then there’s Busch, Gordon and Kenseth, who have all shown strength at one point or another.
All that said, an unknown rookie won the 500 in 2011 and another rookie is on the pole now. And with as many questions that remain concerning the behavior of the cars, the unexpected is almost assured.
There has been very little that is "stock" on a NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car in well over 25 years. And its maturation from "race what you drove to the track" to modern-day engineering marvel is intriguing. To illustrate this, we creating this visual history of the evolution of the stock car.
Predicting the best drivers to hit the track this season.
As the 2013 NASCAR season revs up this weekend at Daytona, Athlon Sports offers up our preseason Top 25 Sprint Cup Series driver rankings. Click on each driver's name for a detailed preview of what fans can expect in 2013.
Running the facts, figures and numbers on the Daytona 500
Photo by ASP, Inc.
The Daytona 500 is an event that transcends its own sport, much the same as the Super Bowl, the World Series or the Masters. Over the last 54 years, a lot of history has been made just off the beach (and just on it) on Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-miles of asphalt. The following is a look at the numbers, facts and figures of NASCAR's biggest race.
NASCAR’s Super Bowl Explosion Winner’s Share In The First Daytona 500 (1959): $19,050 (Lee Petty) Winner’s Share In Last Year’s Daytona 500 (2012): $1,588,887 (Matt Kenseth) Full Purse, first Daytona 500 (59 starters): $67,760 Full Purse, 54th Daytona 500 (43 starters): $17,277,409 Last-place share in 1959: Ken Marriott, 59th place, $100 Last-place share in 2012: David Ragan 43rd place, $267,637 Average income, Middle-Class American: $41,560 per year (Source: http://bber.unm.edu/econ/us-pci.htm) -- U.S. Dept. Of Commerce)
This 500 … Brought to You by the Number Six
The big buzzword you’ve hear throughout Speedweeks sounds more like an education initiative than a race car. But “Gen-6” is NASCAR’s biggest change this decade, a new chassis type rolling out in 2013 designed to win back fans through a sleeker, “stock” look that make the Ford Fusions, Chevy SS models, and Toyota Camrys more like what you’d see on the street.
“The collaborative efforts between the manufacturers, teams, and NASCAR has been unparalleled in my 34 years in the sport,” crowed Robin Pemberton last month on the Gen-6’s pending Daytona debut.
Translation? NASCAR learned from the dreadful Car of Tomorrow communication debacle, where even CEO Brian France admitted recently “we made some errors” in a model that was highly criticized. This time, they’ve kept everyone from your low-level crewman, to tire specialist, to car owner, to their top R&D engineers on the same page in developing a car they believe will come out competitive.
Tandem Drafting No More
It’s the Valentine Day’s breakup even Cupid is privately cheering. In January testing, “Gen-6” hated being paired up, with even the slightest two-car bumpdraft causing instability to the point it just won’t happen in the 500. Even plate expert Dale Earnhardt Jr. started a 12-car wreck in testing by trying to lightly push Marcos Ambrose in the turns. The Sprint Unlimited witnessed the same thing, as a six-car wreck decimated the field just 15 laps into the event.
“I’m anticipating handling is going to be a little bit more of a premium than what we’ve had in the past,” says Jeff Gordon, pointing to less downforce in the rear of the car. Others claim the new drafting package is similar to what NASCAR had a decade ago, where drivers laid back to “set up” their slingshot moves inside a large pack.
A Guaranteed Photo Finish?
Say what you will about restrictor plates, first bolted onto the cars in 1988 at Daytona as a safety measure to keep fans and drivers safe. But one thing you can’t argue is that horsepower-sucking piece of metal virtually guarantees “close” finishes. 24 of the last 25 Daytona 500s, since the inception of this “plate” era have produced a margin of victory equaling roughly two car lengths or less. Only Darrell Waltrip’s fuel-mileage gamble, in 1989, was the exception to the rule (Waltrip won by a “comfortable” 7.64 seconds over Ken Schrader). No other sports’ premier event has such a track record of razor-close endings.
Can Kyle Busch break through for Toyota? (ASP, Inc.)
Daytona: Toyota’s Achilles’ Heel
As the first foreign automaker to win in NASCAR’s Cup level since Jaguar in 1954, the Toyota Camry has been competitive at NASCAR’s top level. But when it comes to the Triple Crown of success on which each car is judged — drivers’ championship, manufacturers’ title and the Daytona 500 — Toyota has fallen short. The Great American Race, in particular, has been a Great American Debacle for the Toyota camp.
In its first year on the circuit, two-time 500 winner Michael Waltrip’s team was nearly expelled from the track for attempting to put jet fuel inside the engine of his NAPA Toyota. While Toyota has improved dramatically since, even winning the summer race here with Kyle Busch in 2008, it’s done no better than third in February.
The “Intimidator” Curse: From Zero To Hero?
Even casual sports fans remember Dale Earnhardt’s “reverse of the curse,” winning the 1998 Daytona 500 after 20 years’ worth of black cats, broken mirrors, cut tires and virtually every type of hard-luck story imaginable. In the 15 years since, no superstar has quite matched Big E’s legendary levels of frustration but there are plenty of drivers looking to break an “0-for” in the sport’s biggest race. Here’s a look:
Mark Martin 500 Record: 0-for-28 The Lowdown: 40 career wins, 55 poles, over 12,700 laps led. At 54 years old and a freee agent at season’s end, could this be Martin’s last great shot? Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2007 Best Shot Thus Far: The sport’s best supporting actor with five runner-up finishes in the point standings had a similar “oh so close” moment at Daytona six years ago. Leading 26 laps in a Herculean effort with an organization that would go broke six months later, he was leading entering the final lap. But as a melee broke out behind him off Turn 4, Martin slowed ever so slightly, anticipating a caution that never came. Kevin Harvick slid by for the victory in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history and left Martin’s beach dreams adrift in the tide. The veteran has been no better than 10th since.
500 Record: 0-for-14 The Lowdown: 47 wins in exactly 500 series starts, three Cup titles and wins at all but two tracks currently on the circuit (Darlington and Kentucky). Best 500 Finish: 2nd, 2004 Best Shot Thus Far: With nearly 300 laps led in the 500, no modern driver in NASCAR matches more with Earnhardt’s tales of woe. The lowest of the low came in 2007-08. The first year, Stewart was arguably the fastest car until being caught up in a wreck with rival Kurt Busch while cruising in formation well ahead of the field. Then, he had the trophy in sight entering the last lap in ’08, only for he and Toyota teammate Kyle Busch to get drafted past by Ryan Newman and (again) Busch.
500 Record: 0-for-19 The Lowdown: 21 Cup wins, four top-5 points finishes Bes 500 Finish: 2nd, 2000 Best Shot Thus Far: Burton, who didn’t even lead a lap in the big race until his ninth start (2002) has finished 24th or worse in the 500 nine times. But if there’s a darkhorse for the race, he could be it: both of Burton’s top-5 finishes in 2012 came at Daytona and teammate Kevin Harvick showed the muscled to win last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited.
Other Notables Seeking Redemption: Bobby Labonte (0-for-20), Kurt Busch (0-for-12), Greg Biffle (0-for-10), Kasey Kahne (0-for-9), Carl Edwards (0-for-8, won last year’s 500 pole), Kyle Busch (0-for-8), Denny Hamlin (0-for-7), Clint Bowyer (0-for-7).
Crash And Burn? Daytona’s “Big One” Looms
With plate racing keeping most cars locked together in close quarters, the question of a major wreck in the 500 is not a case of “if” but “when.” Here’s a look at the multi-car incidents that have most affected the race:
1992: Leaders Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan go three-wide before Irvan pushes it a bit too far. The 14-car wreck that ensues takes out almost all contenders, as well as Richard Petty in his last 500. Only five cars end the race on the lead lap.
1999: A 12-car wreck, started between teammates Kenny Irwin Jr. and Dale Jarrett wipes out the two-time 500 champ along with Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin.
2001: Overshadowed by Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death 25 laps later, a 19-car wreck saw Tony Stewart’s No. 20 flip wildly in what was almost another tragedy. Thankfully, no one came out hurt.
2002: An 18-car Demolition Derby incident on Lap 150 takes out Ken Schrader, who had led 46 laps at that point and considerably thins the field.
2009: As a lapped car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. tangles with Brian Vickers to start a 10-car melee that takes out a dominant Kyle Busch, who had led 88 of the first 123 laps of the race.
2011: Just 29 laps into the event, Michael Waltrip’s ill-timed bumpdraft wipes out 14 vehicles, including five-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson.
Opposites Attract: Inside the List of 500 Champs Youngest: Trevor Bayne, 20 years, one day (2011) Oldest: Bobby Allison, 50 years, two months, 11 days (1988) Fastest Average Speed: 177.602 mph (Buddy Baker, 1980) Slowest Average Speed: 124.740 mph (Junior Johnson, 1960) Best Starting Position: Pole, nine times (Fireball Roberts, 1962; Richard Petty, 1966; Cale Yarborough, 1968; Buddy Baker, 1980; Cale Yarborough, 1984; Bill Elliott, 1985 & ’87, Jeff Gordon, 1999; Dale Jarrett, 2000) Worst Starting Position: 39th (Matt Kenseth, 2009)
Doubles and Triples Three-Consecutive 500 Winners
1973-74: Richard Petty
1983-84: Cale Yarborough
1994-95: Sterling Marlin
Owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske have also accomplished the “double dip” feat, with Ganassi pulling an unprecedented Triple Crown: he captured Daytona, the Indy 500, and NASCAR’s Indy race (the Brickyard 400) all in the same 2010 season.
"There have been other tracks that have separated the men from the boys. This is the track that will separate the brave from the weak after the boys are gone." – Driver Jimmy Thompson on the first Daytona 500
Daytona: By the Numbers
Husband/wife driver combinations to compete in the 500. Of course, we only mention this because of that little Danica Patrick/Ricky Stenhouse Jr. relationship. Could we be seeing the pair change that in a couple years? Yeah, probably not.
Jet dryer explosion in 53 years of the race (Juan Pablo Montoya, 2012 – luckily no one was hurt.)
Father/son duos to win the 500 in just 53 events: Lee & Richard Petty, Bobby & Davey Allison, and the Earnhardts (Dale Sr. & Jr.)
The number of different manufacturers to win the 500: Chevy, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Ford, Plymouth, Mercury, Dodge and Buick.
The average number of laps led by the last six Daytona 500 winners, proving in this age of NASCAR parity the only lap that matters is the last one.
The number of Daytona 500 wins for Chevrolet, the most of any manufacturer. Ford, however, has won three of the last four (they’re second with 13 wins overall).
The highest number of Daytona 500 starts without a victory, held by Wisconsin’s Dave Marcis. The independent driver, famous for wearing his wingtip shoes in the cockpit, made 32 consecutive appearances from 1968-99, then retired after the 2002 Daytona race but never led more than three laps in any of them. (Best finish: 6th twice – 1975 & ’78)
Most Cup wins of any driver, all-time, without a Daytona 500 on their resume (Rusty Wallace). The 1989 Cup Series champ and a short track specialist, Wallace was never better than third in the big race. (Tony Stewart holds the record amongst active drivers, with 47.)
The record number of cars that started the 1960 Daytona 500; 39 finished the race. NASCAR adopted the current max of 43 cars in 1998.
The fastest pole speed, in miles per hour, recorded for the 500. Accomplished by Bill Elliott in 1987, the advent of the plates a year later have made attaining those speeds impossible. Experts estimate without the slowdown, NASCAR vehicles today could soar over 230 mph heading into Daytona’s high-banked turns.
The fewest miles run by any Daytona 500 winner in history. Michael Waltrip won the 2003 version of the race with just 109 of 200 laps complete after a drenching rainstorm cut the finish short.
Starts by Michael Waltrip before earning his first NASCAR Cup victory: the 2001 Daytona 500. It’s the longest anyone has raced in the sport’s top division before hitting Victory Lane.