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Saturday, February 23, 2013
Updated: March 8, 2:18 PM ET
Our picks for the Daytona 500 podium

ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- ESPN.com's Ed Hinton said it best after turning in his predictions for the top three finishers in Sunday's Daytona 500 (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

"It'd be easier to pick the trifecta at Daytona Beach Kennel Club than picking the top three in order in this crapshoot," the crafty veteran said. "But as Dale Earnhardt used to say, everwhat."

Crapshoot, indeed.

You might have a better chance of picking every winner in Sunday night's Academy Awards than correctly predicting the top three for the "Great American Race." There are too many unknowns, from who will figure out the draft with the new Gen-6 car to who will avoid the inevitable big wreck to who will get the right push at the finish.

Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart had the most first-place votes from our illustrious group with two each. Stewart, Kenseth and Kevin Harvick got the most mentions with four each.

The only thing our ESPN.com panel totally agreed on is pole-winner Danica Patrick won't have a podium finish and make more history.

But Patrick believes she has a chance to win. Almost every driver in the field outside of a few start-and-parkers believes that, and based on the history of restrictor-plate racing, there's good reason.

Last year was as close as we've seen to a high-profile finish with Kenseth beating Dale Earnhardt and Greg Biffle. But we had to wait an extra day and sit through a delay of two-plus hours for Juan Pablo Montoya hitting a jet dryer to get to that.

In 2011, it was Trevor Bayne, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland. The year before that, it was Jamie McMurray, Earnhardt and Biffle. Before that it was Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and AJ Allmendinger.

Notice a pattern? Almost every year, there's a surprise in the top three.

It truly is a crapshoot.

But as Earnhardt said, everwhat.

-- David Newton


Throw the three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers in a hat and pull one out and you probably have a good chance of picking the winner for the Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin all have looked strong this week whenever the cars did some actual drafting on the track, which wasn't often.

Terry Blount
Blount

But I'll go with Rowdy, and I thought that before he won his Duel race Thursday. Other than Tony Stewart, Kyle might be the best restrictor-plate racer who hasn't won this race.

Speaking of Stewart, he also makes my top three. Smoke is the Dale Earnhardt of his era in trying to break his Daytona 500 jinx. Stewart has 18 victories at this track, but not the 500. It took Earnhardt 20 tries to win the 500.

And it would look silly not to list Kevin Harvick in the top three. The No. 29 Chevy team hasn't made a wrong move since it arrived at Daytona, winning twice heading into the 500. But Happy will do something that's never been done if he wins Sunday. No driver has won the Unlimited, a qualifying race and the 500 in the same year.

-- Terry Blount


I'll stop short of saying Matt Kenseth has been playing possum in his new ride, a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, all week. He did show lots of strength in the Sprint Unlimited, running the low lane all by himself at times and still pulling up alongside the leader with regularity. He couldn't get his car ahead, but Sunday, drivers predict plenty of them will be running the low side, so Kenseth should get help in either lane. He has emerged as a real master of plate racing and should repeat last year's Daytona 500 win.

Ed Hinton
Hinton

Jeff Gordon has been flying ever so slightly under the radar, qualifying second to Danica Patrick, then failing to win his Duel only because of a pit road speeding penalty. Before that, he was breezing along in the lead, no problem. Gordon is so strong I won't exactly pick him second so much as call Kenseth 1 and Gordon 1A.

Kevin Harvick looks like the favorite based on winning the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel, but Harvick at times can fall back with handling issues in these plate races, and this 500 is particularly handling-sensitive. He has looked the strongest because he's been up front. Now he'll be only among the strongest.

-- Ed Hinton


The scenario is too good to be true: Tony Stewart drafting to the lead with teammate Danica Patrick in the waning laps of the Daytona 500.

For Stewart, there would be no thoughts of what a first Sprint Cup win by a female, in the sport's biggest race, of all things, could do for his business and the sport. There probably wouldn't be thoughts of how he had tried unsuccessfully 14 times to win NASCAR's prestige event. It would just be Stewart making a pass, moving to the front and winning.

Marty Smith
James

Whether the no-drama drama plays out with Patrick on Sunday or not, Stewart still raises the Harley J. Earl Trophy for the first time.

Stewart chastised the media amid a series of Patrick questions on Friday that Ryan Newman was still a member of the team. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner will deliver a reminder of that Sunday by avoiding the inevitable melee at the finish to take second.

And to complete the Stewart-Haas Racing meme, Sprint Unlimited and Duels winner Kevin Harvick, who will join the team next season, will round out the top three.

-- Brant James


I have my eye on all three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, but particularly the team's newest edition. If you've really watched Matt Kenseth during this Speedweeks, you've seen him doing as much experimenting as racing.

Ryan McGee
McGee

All that personal trial and error means he likely will have all the right moves worked out for Sunday.

I also like another couple of guys who have no trophies to show for their 2013 Daytona efforts so far but who have the rides -- and aggressiveness -- that will suit this new/old[-style drafting. That'd be Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. I think it'll take guts to make the out-of-line move it will require to win this race in the closing laps, and these two certainly don't lack guts.

-- Ryan McGee


Ricky Stenhouse Jr. might make Danica Patrick smile, but Kyle Busch puts a grin on my face when you're talking about winning the Daytona 500.

David Newton
Newton

For me, it came down to Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth. The Toyotas, as we've seen since arriving in Daytona Beach, are strong, and these are the two strongest. Busch won the second qualifying race, and Kenseth was in position to win that and the Sprint Unlimited.

Kenseth's biggest problem has been finding somebody to go with him when he goes low. That shouldn't be such an issue with a full field.

Jeff Gordon ran a close third for me, particularly after reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski told me the Chevrolets are "really, really strong.'' That Gordon was the best male qualifier and had the best car in the second duel before a pit road speeding penalty set him back weighed heavily, as well.

Yeah, I left off Chevy driver Kevin Harvick, who won the Unlimited and the first qualifier. But history says you don't sweep Budweiser Speedweeks, not even if you're the Budweiser driver.

Based on what I've seen of the new car, I do feel this will come down to an experienced driver winning instead of a no-name or rookie. Sorry, Danica and Ricky.

I've just got a feeling about Busch.

-- David Newton


Tony Stewart has won practically everything there is to win in the Sprint Cup Series: 47 victories on 21 tracks. A couple of Brickyards. Three championships. But the Daytona 500? He is 0-14. He will not be 0-15. There is a noticeably softened edge to Stewart this Speedweeks, a clearly honed aura to his methodical approach. This Daytona 500, with the new car and the myriad new variables that accompany it, will require adaptability by the wheelmen. No one is more adaptable than Tony Stewart.

Marty Smith
Smith

Kevin Harvick. My goodness what a statement he and his team have made to start the 2013 season. When it was discovered that Harvick was leaving Richard Childress Racing after the season, many assumed it would be a lame-duck, miserable season filled with bickering and finger-pointing. The only fingers pointing are the ones pointing to the sky, signaling "We're No. 1" in Victory Lane. Two races, two wins at Daytona so far for them. They'll be there in the 500, as well. Harvick is an elite plate racer, and his car is slicker than Mel Kiper's hair. After Harvick's Budweiser Duel victory Thursday, I asked him in Victory Lane what sort of statement he was making: "We're showing them that lame ducks have a hell of a lot of fun," he said.

Matt Kenseth is going to be a beast in the 20 car. Just an animal. You can see it already. He has affected Joe Gibbs Racing already. Andy Graves from Toyota Racing Development -- one of the most-talented, intelligent engineers the sport has ever seen -- told me recently that he has received more correspondence from Kenseth in the preseason alone trying to learn than he had received from any other driver, ever. Denny Hamlin told me earlier this week that Kenseth's dogged hard work has affected the entire company, forced everyone else to dig deeper, work harder. And Kenseth is one of the best plate racers alive. We saw in the Sprint Unlimited how good his car was all by itself on the bottom groove. Wait until he gets some help Sunday. I think the bottom groove will win the Daytona 500. He's really good down there.

-- Marty Smith

Here's a voter-by-voter breakdown of the results: