What’s the one thing that you remember about the last two Daytona 500’s? Is it Dale Earnhardt Jr’s widely celebrated win in 2004 and Jeff Gordon’s late race heroics in 2005, or is it the fact that Tony Stewart led the most laps in each of those events? Unless you are a hardcore Stewart fan, it’s improbable that it is the latter.
No driver has led more NASCAR laps or miles at Daytona since 2004 than Stewart. In 2004, Stewart seemed well on his way to his first Daytona 500 triumph as he led 97 laps in the 200-lap event, only to be overtaken by Earnhardt Jr with 20 laps remaining. A year later Stewart led 107 of 203 laps only to watch Gordon rejoice in his third Daytona 500 victory.
And we all recall how Stewart eradicated the field last July at Daytona. He won the pole and led 151 of 160 laps en route to his first career NASCAR restrictor plate win.
So now we’ve not only determined that Stewart is fast at Daytona, but obviously he’s frustrated too. Those two f -words bode well for Stewart’s chances. Motivation was a key factor in my selecting Stewart to win his first Daytona 500. He’s undoubtedly overdue.
Earlier in Stewart’s career, restrictor plate racing wasn’t considered his strong suit as he was either really good or really bad. Over the years he’s learned the ways of the draft and knows when and when not to make his move. Though he doesn’t have the wins to show it, he’s been just as good as Earnhardt Jr and Gordon as restrictor plate racing over the last couple of years.
Among the 2006 Daytona 500 favorites are Earnhardt Jr, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick.
Who are the sleepers?
Don’t be surprised if the old wily veteran Sterling Marlin challenges Stewart as he endeavors to join Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon as the only active drivers to win the Daytona 500 at least three times. Marlin will hop into the ride that Scott Riggs finished fourth in a year ago. With Hendrick horsepower under the hood, Marlin could easily be considered a favorite instead of a sleeper. Another veteran that could spoil the young guns party is Ken Schrader. Despite his lower-tier rides in recent years, Schrader has always been respectable at Daytona and Talladega. This year his status upgraded when he departed BAM Racing and signed on with the Wood Brothers. He’ll be powered by the unwavering Roush/Yates engine package.
Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth’s names do not usually come up very often when talking about Daytona 500 favorites, especially if you go by results alone. Newman finished 20th, 39th, 14th, and 4th while Kenseth finished 42nd, 11th, 9th, and 3rd at the four races held at Daytona and Talladega. Don’t allow those finishes to deceive you. Both Newman and Kenseth were consistently among the front-runners during each of those races.
Expect a strong showing from rookie contenders Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. Traditionally strong restrictor plate programs power both rookies. If they can keep their noses clean and avoid the customary rookie mistakes, they’ll be among the front pack of cars during the latter stages of the race.
Also among the sleepers are Jamie McMurray, Joe Nemechek, Scott Riggs, and Jeff Burton.
Projected top ten finishing order
1. 20-Tony Stewart, Chevrolet
2. 14-Sterling Marlin, Chevrolet
3. 8-Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet
4. 17-Matt Kenseth, Ford
5. 24-Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet
6. 12-Ryan Newman, Dodge
7. 1-Martin Truex Jr, Chevrolet
8. 88-Dale Jarrett, Ford
9. 48-Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet
10. 29-Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet
Potential sleeper – Jamie McMurray, Ford