Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2004 [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 11, 2004
Daytona 500 Preview

By Bryan Van Stippen

by Bryan Van Stippen

NASCAR is taking on a new look this season. Although sponsors Nextel and Sunoco make their debut, the biggest offseason change has been the alteration of the points system. With the new look "Chase for the Championship" coming into play over the final 10 races of the year, only a handful of the field will be allowed to race for the championship. Although NASCAR has made dramatic changes, fantasy racing has not. Selecting the top drivers week-in and week-out based on statistical history and trends is still what will help determine which fantasy owners hoist a fantasy championship trophy -- or flat-panel television -- over their heads at the end of the season.

Heading into the first race of the year at Daytona International Speedway, DEI drivers Michel Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be considered the favorites. Waltrip has won three of the last six races here, including taking the checkered flag in two of the last three Daytona 500s. He has five top 5 finishes while finishing no worse than 11th place since 2001 - when he joined DEI. Earnhardt Jr. has had his troubles here, especially in the Daytona 500. He has struggled in the last two Daytona 500s, finishing 29th and 36th, respectively. Earnhardt Jr. does have a win here (it came in the July race in 2001) and a second place finish in the 2001 Daytona 500. As long as he can stay out of trouble, Earnhardt Jr. will be near the front at the end of the day.

It may surprise some to find Roush Racing drivers Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton are among some of the top drivers here. Of all drivers in the series, Burton ranks fourth with an average finish of 15th place. He has posted finishes of 13th or better in eight of the last 12 events, while crossing the finish line first in the July race of 2000. Biffle, meanwhile, won the July race here last season and will be leading the field to the green flag come Sunday.

In selecting a fantasy racing lineup, owners need to allocate the salary cap wisely in selecting the best drivers for that race. Unfortunately, the best drivers are the most expensive drivers. Therefore it is important to find those drivers who can have solid finishes while coming at an inexpensive price. This is the area where a fantasy owner can make the biggest gains on their competition. A driver that falls into this category for the Daytona 500 is Joe Nemechek. Nemechek is in a new ride with MB2 Motorsports and has been one of the quickest cars during Speedweeks. Nemechek posted some of the best practice speeds and qualified in the eighth position. A downside is that he has posted just four finishes in the top 20 in the last 12 races here, with zero top 10 finishes.

A second driver to consider is Jeremy Mayfield. Mayfield is coming off an outstanding second half of the 2003 season, in which he posted 10 of his 12 top 10 finishes. Mayfield has also produced here with a pair of eighth place finishes in the two events last season. With the exception of an accident in the 2002 Daytona 500, Mayfield has not finished worse than 13th in four races here with Evernham Motorsports. Not only does he have a good history with Evernham, but he was leading the Budweiser Shootout late in the event last week before getting involved in a wreck. With that performance, Mayfield proved he could run up front.

A final driver who fantasy owners can benefit from selecting is John Andretti. Andretti will be in the third car in the DEI stable and will be driving in a limited number of events for the team this season. He has had plenty of problems throughout his career here, but with the success the DEI team has had on restrictor plate tracks, Andretti should be in for a solid run. He should be able to improve upon his 26th place career average finish.

Pre-Qualifying Rankings
Driver Rank Av. Fn. Hist. QRank SpRank HOT PreQ
M. Waltrip 15 19.0 4.5 13 10 -5.3 6.8
D. Earnhardt Jr. 3 12.7 19.5 3 4 -0.7 6.8
G. Biffle 20 19.7 11 1 3 -2.3 7.1
J. Burton 12 17.1 14.5 17 18 1.4 17.4
J. Nemechek 25 23.1 34 8 5 0.7 17.6
J. Mayfield 19 20.5 17 18 24 -1.5 18.3
J. Andretti 38 27.1 31.6 21 13 -2.3 22.2

The Factors used in calculating the PreQ are as follow:
a) Drivers Points Rank - taken from the end of the 2003 season.
b) Average Finish - the average finish for the respective driver during all events run in 2003.
c) History - average of the drivers finish in the last four races at this particular track.
d) Q-Rank - the position in which the driver qualified for the event.
e) Speed Rank - average of lap times from both practices and qualifying.
f) HOT! Factor - factor based on statistical analysis using trends throughout the season.

Bryan Van Stippen is ESPN's fantasy racing correspondent and the senior staff writer for Fantasy GMs (www.fantasygms.com). Email any questions or comments to bvs@fantasygms.com.

All statistics are provided by Fantasy Racing Advisor.