Daytona Handicaps

Editor’s note: Handicapping a plate race is a fool’s errand. A driver can be running in the front pack for most of the race and fall to 30th on the final lap if he gets in the wrong lane of traffic. Compounding things this year is the newly styled bodies (I.E. common templates) and the downsized fuel cells which are being used at Daytona for the first time next weekend.

Tony Stewart- Stewart may feel he’s got some unfinished business with Daytona after last year. Tony was strong in the preliminaries leading up to the 500 in 2002 and won his second consecutive Bud Shootout and finished second in his 125. It looked like Stewart had a strong car for the 500 as well, but he blew an engine on the second lap and finished dead last. The fact is while he’s had a couple sixth place finishes in the Firecracker 400 Stewart has yet to enjoy a decent Daytona 500 result with a best finish of 17th here in 2000. Yep, if the Daytona International Speedway were a photographer the champ would slug him one right in the yap.

Mark Martin- While Martin has won the Busch Clash he’s never won a points paying race at Daytona. But last year Martin showed solid improvement over his Daytona averages with a fifth and sixth place finish. The Roush restrictor plate program has been notably improved over the last few years.

Kurt Busch- Busch’s debut in the “bigs” at Daytona in the inaugural Truck series race was memorable for all the wrong reasons. He triggered the horrific wreck that almost launched Geoffrey Bodine’s truck into the grandstands. Busch did finish 4th here last year and has shown some aptitude at plate racing as of late.

Jeff Gordon- While he made his Winston Cup debut at the 1992 season finale at Atlanta, Jeff Gordon entered most Winston Cup fans radar screens when he arrived at Daytona in 1993, won his 125 mile qualifier and darn near won the Daytona 500. Since then Gordon has won two Daytona 500s (1997 and 1999) and two Firecracker 400s (1995 and 1998). But the law of averages catches up with even the great ones. Since his last Daytona win Gordon has managed just two top 10s here in the seven races run since. It’s worth noting in both his Daytona 500 victories Gordon made daring passes on the apron to take the lead, a strategy that is no longer legal.

Jimmie Johnson- Johnson showed up at Daytona last year as a rookie and promptly won the pole for the 500. He finished 15th in that race but managed an eighth place result in last year’s Firecracker 400.

Ryan Newman- Newman finished 7th in his first Daytona 500 last year.

Rusty Wallace- Wallace will be participating in his 20th Daytona 500 never having won the big race though he’s been close on a number of occasions including a second place finish in last year’s Firecracker 400 his best ever Daytona result. Wallace has nine finishes of 11th or better in the last ten points plate races run at Daytona.

Matt Kenseth- Go figure. In six Daytona points races he’s run to date, Matt’s best finish was in his first stab at the joint, a 10th place finish in the ’00 Daytona 500. Four of his six other career finishes at Daytona have resulted in 20th place or worse results.

Dale Jarrett- Jarrett has won four time at Daytona with three of those victories coming in the Daytona 500. But DJ has finished 14th and 22nd in the last two Daytona 500s. As the fortunes of Ford go, so will DJ’s.

Ricky Rudd- Rudd is another driver wrapped in a long streak of futility at Daytona having raced here 52 times without a win. Rudd’s best Daytona points finish is third (three times) but he has just two top 10s in the last ten Daytona points races. The transition to the Wood Brothers team may cause Rudd to get off to a slow start this season as well.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.- As of late when it comes to plate races the DEI cars are the prohibitive favorites. Junior seemed to have a strong car here last year for this race, but a rash of blown tires ended his chances. His second place result in the 2001 Daytona 500 is largely overshadowed by the tragedy that befell his family and the sport that day, but Junior rebounded with that memorable win in July of that year in the Firecracker 400. So who’s turn is it to win this time, Waltrip’s or Dale’s?

Jeff Burton- Burton has never won the Daytona 500 but did score a victory in the 2000 Firecracker 400 backing up a solid second place finish in the 500 that same year.

Bill Elliott- Elliott is a four time winner in Daytona points races with a pair of wins in the 500 and the 400. But the most recent of those wins was way back in 1991 during the pre-Gordon era of the sport. But word is Ray Evernham and Bill have a strong piece this year, and they haven’t played all their cards yet. Good dark horse pick if the engine stays together.

Michael Waltrip- Waltrip has precisely two career wins in 534 career Cup starts and both of them occurred at Daytona. The question isn’t whether Waltrip will be a contender in this weekend’s 500 (he will be) but whether he’ll be a contender anywhere else for the rest of the season. (Stay tuned.)

Ricky Craven- Craven’s one moment of Daytona glory was finishing third behind teammates Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte in the 1997 Daytona 500. In the eight starts he’s made in points races at Daytona over the last five years Ricky hasn’t managed to do any better than 14th. But if the Daytona 500 is ever moved to New Hampshire, he’ll still be a crowd favorite.

Bobby Labonte- While Labonte has never won at Daytona he did finish second here twice. (Both races in 1998) Last year Daytona wasn’t good to Labonte who finished 34th and 32nd. I think the 18 team will get back on track this year, but I don’t think it will be this weekend.

Jeff Green- Well he’s got a pretty good starting spot, hasn’t he? Best Daytona finish in a Cup car is 19th in three races he’s run here.

Sterling Marlin- Marlin is one of three drivers who won back to back Daytona 500s and he could have added a third last year were it not for the oft discussed impromptu bodywork he decided to do on his front fender under the red flag at last year’s race.

Dave Blaney- Has yet to crack the top 20 in six Daytona Cup races. When frogs get wings.

Robby Gordon- They tell me there’s “fans” of racing who only watch for the wrecks. I don’t know that such folks are out there, but if they are they’d be well advised to keep an eye on the 31 car cause most likely he’ll trigger a big one.

Others To Watch

Ward Burton- Burton is after all the defending Daytona 500 champion. He could become the fourth driver in history to win back to back Daytona 500s. Stranger things have happened. Not many, but stranger things have happened.

Kevin Harvick- Harvick has a strong run going in last year’s Daytona 500, his first 500 start, until he made that one poorly considered move and took out half the field. Scrape away the new paint job though and underneath you’ve got a black 3 car, the car that year in and year out was always a threat in the 500.

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