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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Daytona 500: Make Martin the favorite

By Mark Garrow

For 2010, ESPN's Stock Car Challenge, in association with Jayski, has a brand-new format and it's going to be a lot of fun to play, especially with so many potential team combinations for every Sprint Cup race. All you need to do is pick three drivers from Group A and two from Group B. It looks like it will be pretty easy to pick your team, but getting the strongest combination will be no easy trick. That's where, hopefully, "The Guru" can come to the rescue with my weekly race previews and two weekly chats -- Wednesdays from 3 to 4 p.m. ET and then every race day, the latter of which will feature my exclusive crew chief notes. I'm fired up for the new season to begin and look forward to working with all my fantasy racing friends again.

Now, let's drop the hammer on the Daytona 500.


In Group A, there are 15 drivers and, as you would suspect, there's not a bowwow in the bunch. Each one is capable of running at least in the top-10. But who are the top three? Who are the guys with the best chance to win NASCAR's biggest race?

Mark Martin is ranked first in my Group A. With the bigger restrictor plate, this race will be more about handling than it normally is and, unlike Talladega, the pack will break up during long green-flag runs. So when it comes to making great adjustments during the race, Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson are usually running better at the end than they did in the early laps. The 51-year-old driver has the speed and is burning to win the 500 since barely getting beaten in 2007.

My second pick is Tony Stewart, for many of the same reasons I like Martin. He's got the speed with Hendrick horsepower under the hood, and his car normally gets better during the race as Darian Grubb calls the shots. Let's not forget that Grubb won the Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson in 2007 when Grubb was subbing for suspended crew chief Chad Knaus. Then consider that Stewart has finished top-10 in three of the past four 500s and has won the July shootout here three times, in 2005, '06 and '09. If the weather is warm this Sunday and the track gets slick, like it does here in the summer, it will play right into Stewart's hands.

Ranked third is the wild child, Kyle Busch. Yes, I know he finished 41st last year, but that hardly tells the story. The M&M's Toyota driver led 88 laps before he was sucked into a multicar crash. Busch still has the speed, and he's in a good place mentally going into Speedweeks 2010, having started his own Truck team and getting engaged. He also won here in July 2008.

Kurt Busch is the man I list fourth in Group A. That might surprise some people. This guy can flat-out get it done on the restrictor-plate tracks. A runner-up in the 500 in '08, he finished 10th last year and has four straight top-5 finishes in July's Daytona race.

Listed fifth in my rankings here is Ryan Newman, the 2008 winner of the 500 and a guy who's been top-5 in two of the past February events here at Daytona.

Just missing my top-five in the weekly ratings is Jimmie Johnson. We all know that every time he takes the green flag, he's capable of winning. The four-time champ won the 500 in 2006, but since then he has only two top-10s in his past seven Daytona outings, with the other five finishes ranging from 23 to 39. It also needs to be pointed out he was runner-up here last summer. Right behind JJ is teammate Jeff Gordon, a three-time Daytona 500 winner. Lately, though, the DuPont Chevy driver has struggled here; 13th was his best finish in his past four starts (the other three finishes were 28, 30, and 39).

My sleeper pick in this group is Clint Bowyer. He was sixth a year ago and has finished top-10 in five of his past seven Daytona starts. One of the times he didn't finish top-10 was two years ago, when he had a top-5 coming out of Turn 4 on the final lap but was flipped over and wound up skidding across the finish line on his roof in 18th place.


There are over 40 drivers in the category and, again, I'll rank my top five.

At No. 1 is Kevin Harvick, who won the 500 in 2007 and was second a year ago to Matt Kenseth when the rains came. He's finished no worse than 14th in the past four 500s and his average finish in that span is 7.7.

Second in the rankings is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has the speed, grabbing the outside pole position, and his team is working hand in hand now with Mark Martin's. That should pay off big dividends and it should start right here at Daytona. Let's now forget that he's won the 500 before and in 2008 came home third in both Daytona races.

Most people will consider my next three drivers sleepers, but here at Daytona they are actually much stronger than maybe most would think. Let's take Elliot Sadler at No. 3. This guy is an underrated plate racer, especially at the World Center of Racing. Who's the only driver to finish sixth or better in the past four Daytona 500s? Sadler is the answer. The boy can flat-out get it done on this 2.5-mile track. If NASCAR had thrown the yellow flag 15 seconds earlier last year, he would have won the 500. And what about 2002, when he was the runner-up to Ward Burton?

The other two I really like in Group B are Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton. McMurray won the July race here in '07 and won the plate race at Talladega last fall. Burton came home third in the 500 back in '07 and then finished 13th and 28th the past two years. Those finishes are not that impressive, but Burton has had a chance to win all three races, and let's not forget that he has won the summer shootout on this 2.5-mile track.

So let's get revved up for Week 1 in the all-new Stock Car Challenge, and if you'd like to challenge me every week, join my Jayski Junkies league and follow me on Twitter at @GuruGarrow!