Thursday's racing didn't features many lead changes, but at least Tony Stewart is sniping at someone. While Joe Gibbs tries to keep Stewart and Bobby Labonte from exchanging blows, here are a few thoughts on the fantasy ramifications of both 125-mile races.
Mike Wallace may not have a ride when NASCAR goes to Rockingham next week, but he's doing just fine at Daytona. Driving the No. 33 car, Wallace finished eighth in Thursday's first 125-mile qualifying race. That result is dandy on its own merits, but Wallace actually deserved better, running in the top five for most of the 54-lap event. Coming on the heels of the 11th-fastest time in Saturday's pole qualifying, Thursday's result suggests Wallace has his car dialed in for this race.
It looks like Mark Martin is headed out to pasture. Martin didn't impress anyone with last season's 12th-place finish in the point standing, and things aren't improving at the start of this season. Arguably the weakest of Roush Racing's cars at Daytona, and that's saying something, Martin posted the 33rd-fastest time in pole qualifying before dropping out midway through Thursday's 125-mile qualifier. He starts outside the top 30 and may find it difficult to crack the top 20 on Sunday.
It's silly to base any long-term judgment on two laps of qualifying and 54 laps of racing, but Ricky Craven's status as a sleeper is in jeopardy. Craven posted the 45th-fastest speed in qualifying, finishing behind the likes of Greg Biffle and Shawna Robinson. Thursday, he appeared headed for a top-14 finish in the first qualifier but faded at the first sign of tire fatigue. It's easy to explain last season's first-half failures given Craven's comeback story, but he has no such excuse this spring. Craven should have no trouble sticking around the top 20 in the standings, but many fantasy owners are expecting more of a breakthrough season.
For all those owners kicking themselves for keeping Jimmie Johnson on the bench, don't feel so bad. After looking great in earning the pole on an open track, Johnson looked very much a rookie during Thursday's first 125-mile qualifying race. The No. 48 car drew a black-flag penalty for dropping below the yellow line, effectively knocking him out of contention. Johnson may well be right that the violation wasn't his fault; it looked like he was forced below the line. Still, Johnson's slight slip in composure after the incident doesn't bode well for what can be a grueling 500-mile race.
Did Terry Labonte enjoy his stay in oblivion? Labonte has been all over the leaderboard at Daytona: seventh-fastest in qualifying, seventh in the Bud Shootout and fifth in Thursday's first 125-mile qualifier. Labonte enjoyed no such luck at last year's race, starting 34th and finishing 24th. That began a season in which the No. 5 Chevy notched just one top-five finish and three top-10 finishes. Like counting out Nadeau or getting too excited about Johnson, one race (or one week of qualifying) does not a season make, but Labonte's early showing is a lot more promising than in recent seasons.
Valentine's Day capped a miserable start to the season for Jimmy Spencer. Expectations soared following Spencer's move to Chip Ganassi's team, but the No. 41 Dodge looked awful at Daytona. Spencer posted the 44th-best time in pole qualifying and didn't have any owner points to fall back on after crashing out of Thursday's qualifying race. His slim shot at a championship obviously gone, Spencer at least gets some extra prep time for Rockingham. While this all sounds pretty dismal, don't panic and cut the cord on Spencer. He's still going to be a quality third or fourth fantasy driver.
Haven't we seen this before? Michael Waltrip captured Thursday's second 125-mile qualifying race, grabbing the early lead and never surrendering first place. Not only did Waltrip's domination look a lot like last season's win at Daytona, it looked like this year's Bud Shootout and first 125-mile race. While Tony Stewart piloted his Pontiac to victory in the first of those races, it was Chevrolets dominating the rest of the week. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon will have plenty to say about which Chevy comes out on top Sunday, but don't think for a second that Waltrip can't win for the second year in a row.
If Mike Skinner is in front of your driver on Sunday, keep your fingers crossed. Skinner was again at the center of a maelstrom on Thursday, setting off an accident that knocked a number of cars out of contention for the 500. As FRL columnist Scott Symmes points out, it didn't take Robby Gordon long to win in car in which Skinner had nothing but bad luck. Not to bash Skinner, but well, someone has to be the least talented regular on the circuit.
The Ford cars had their moments in Thursday's 125-mile qualifying races, but the results were anything but the blowout feared by some competitors. Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarett fared well in the first race, but both drivers had been the class of Ford's stable throughout the week. Solid performances from Kurt Busch, Todd Bodine (in his backup car) and Ryan Newman are more indicative of newfound speed for the Taurus. That still doesn't explain the failures of Roush Racing's veteran duo. Mark Martin and Jeff Burton each encountered problems that forced them to the pits, and neither the No. 6 nor the No. 99 looked ready to contend for a win.
TNT's Benny Parsons seems a little sweet on Shawn Robinson. Aw shucks, ain't that sweet.