Steve Merrils Daytona Preview

The ninety-one day layoff is finally over and NASCAR returns this Sunday with the Daytona 500 (NBC - 2 p.m. ET). While most major sports play meaningless preseason games, NASCAR isn't afraid to start off with their biggest race of the year. Drivers have spent the past three months preparing for their chance to win the "Great American Race" and to enter their names in the history books with many of the greatest drivers of all time. Handicapping is difficult at the two restrictor plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega) because the cars are tightly bunched together and one slight miscue can cause a major accident which eliminates half the field.

The key to avoiding the dreaded "big one" is to run in front of the pack, which is something the Chevrolets have done very well over the years, winning 13 of the past 17 Daytona 500 races. Below is a look at the top five contenders for this week's race, along with the Pro's (Green) and Con's (Red) when handicapping each driver. DALE EARNHARDT, JR. (4/1) GREEN: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is the most efficient driver on restrictor plate tracks as he has finished Top-10 in 16 of his 24 career races at Daytona and Talladega, with seven overall wins.

Junior also has his crew chief and cousin, Tony Eury, Jr., back at the helm this season. RED: After leading 217 laps and finishing Top-5 in all four restrictor plate races in 2004 with two wins, Earnhardt dropped off tremendously last season and only led five total laps in all four races at Daytona and Talladega with no victories. JEFF GORDON (4/1) GREEN: Jeff Gordon is the active leader in Daytona wins with six victories at this track and ten restrictor plate wins overall. Gordon was the only driver to win at both plate tracks last year and was second overall with 168 laps led in the four races at Daytona and Talladega.

RED: Teamwork is extremely important when it comes to drafting at restrictor plate tracks and Gordon's top teammate and drafting partner is starting 39th due to a tech inspection violation. TONY STEWART (5/1) GREEN: Tony Stewart was the only driver to lead all four restrictor plate races last year and led more laps (325) than any other competitor. Stewart won the Daytona race in July and was the only driver to finish Top-10 in all four plate races, including three Top-5 results.

RED: Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500 and he lost a valuable veteran teammate in Bobby LaBonte this offseason. Stewart's newest teammates Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley are both rookies, although Hamlin was strong in the Bud Shootout last week with a surprising win. JIMMIE JOHNSON (9/1) GREEN: Jimmie Johnson is the best active driver who has yet to win at Daytona as he has finished Top-10 in six of his eight career starts on this track.

Johnson has the best average finish of 7.8 among all active drivers at Daytona and he has an excellent drafting partner in teammate Jeff Gordon. RED: Despite finishing 5th and 6th at Dayton last season, Johnson only led three total laps in the two races. He will also be without his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who was suspended for a rules violation. DALE JARRETT (15/1) GREEN: Perhaps the best long shot in the field, Jarrett won the Talladega race last October and is third among all active drivers with six career wins on plate tracks.

Jarrett has also finished Top-15 in six straight plate races and has a strong teammate in Elliott Sadler who won the first Dual 150 race on Thursday. RED: Running in the front of the pack is extremely important when it comes to avoiding the "Big One" and Jarrett has a tendency to float in the back during the early stages of the race. Overall, Jarrett has only run in the Top-10 for fourteen percent of the laps the past two years on the restrictor plate tracks. Additional drivers worth a look: Elliott Sadler (12/1) Kyle Busch (11/1) Martin Truex (25/1) STEVE MERRIL is a professional sports handicapper and a documented member of The Professional Handicappers League. Get his Premium plays here. .

By: Steve Merril


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