21 February 2014

2014 Daytona 500 Predictions

It is finally here this Sunday, the Great American Race. NASCAR is unique among sports in that its marquee event takes place at the beginning of its season, rather than the end. A Daytona 500 victory can make one's season, seemingly no matter what happens the rest of the season. And if you thought  Now we have the starting lineup set after a relatively unexciting Budweiser Duel (save for the finish of the second race last night when Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel and helped cause a major wreck at the finish), so who will win the 56th Daytona 500?

For the second straight year, NASCAR has got itself a great storyline with the polesitter, as last year it was Danica Patrick and this year it is Austin Dillon. Now the common person may not be familiar with Dillon as they would be with Patrick, there is something very significant about Dillon and the car he is driving, specifically the number. Dillon is driving the 3, and is the first person to drive the 3 since Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500. It is a big deal for the iconic 3 to be returning and it has been polarizing to some, but you cannot deny that it will be cool to see that Richard Childress Racing #3 leading the field to green on Sunday afternoon. He is also only the third rookie pole winner (Loy Allen, Jr. in 1994, Jimmie Johnson in 2002).

But can he win? Surely he can, those RCR Chevy's have shown a lot of speed throughout Speedweeks and Preseason Thunder (although they were not the dominant team last night, more on that in a moment), but the polesitter has not won the 500 since going back-to-back in 1999 (Jeff Gordon) and 2000 (Dale Jarrett). And from what I saw last night in the Duel races, save for leading the first 14 laps, he did not look great.

But last night, we saw once again that Joe Gibbs Racing was the strongest team in the Duels, winning both of them (Matt Kenseth in the first race, Denny Hamlin in the second). And although they had only one driver finish (Hamlin in 14th) with both Kyle Busch and Kenseth suffering engine failures, JGR was the strongest team last year, leading 119 of 200 laps, and I think they will be the team to beat once again.

Nobody has had a better Speedweeks than Denny Hamlin has had. He dominated the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday night, and as mentioned won the second Duel race last night. Only five drivers have won the Busch Clash/Budweiser Shootout/Sprint Unlimited and gone on to win the 500 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Jeff Gordon in 1997 and Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000), but Hamlin will be the sixth. Denny Hamlin will be your 2014 Daytona 500 champion.

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