Here are 12 to watch in the Daytona 500

February, 14, 2009

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- My top 12 drivers to watch in the Daytona 500, with odds and reasoning:

  1. Jeff Gordon: 3-1 -- He's stronger, smoother, more confident here than he's been in years. Only the risk of pileups and the crazy draft keep him from going off at 9-5.
  2. Kyle Busch: 9-2 -- Wild Thing may lead if he can at the white flag, as he did in winning Thursday's qualifier, then show his spectacular reflexes at blocking.
  3. Jimmie Johnson: 5-1 -- Hasn't been drafting quite as smart as teammate Gordon all week, but has a plenty strong enough car to benefit from the right push at the right moment.
  4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 7-1 -- He's still the best at getting to the front in plate racing, but has a bad run of luck at getting caught in other people's pileups.
  5. Mark Martin: 9-1 -- He's more hopeful going into this 500 than any time in memory: so excited about his new Hendrick ride that he just might play rough, for a change, to win.
  6. Jamie McMurray: 10-1 -- Dark Horse Special: McMurray has been far and away the best of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford drivers all week, lurking at or near the front in practices and preliminary events. Now, if he can just concentrate for 500 miles under this kind of pressure.
  7. Tony Stewart: 12-1 -- His chances worsened Saturday when he had to go to a backup car after teammate Ryan Newman wrecked in front of him and took them both out. Stewart's backup isn't bad -- he finished third in the Shootout in it -- but it doesn't drive as well as the one he wrecked.
  8. Martin Truex Jr.: 15-1 -- He's entirely capable of running up near the front all race. It's just a matter of whether he can keep his concentration and keep from getting clipped by wilder drivers.
  9. Denny Hamlin: 18-1 -- If his crew doesn't fail him in the pits, he can hang in near the front 'til the final 10 laps and from there he's got as good a chance in the final crapshoot as anybody.
  10. Joey Logano: 20-1 -- Stranger things have happened here. The rookie learned fast about drafting in his qualifier. Won't actively draft his way to a win, but could get into position to get the winning push from someone else.
  11. Bill Elliott: 22-1 -- Doesn't think his old experience at staying out of trouble necessarily translates now, because back then he could drive off by himself and now he's at the mercy of the pack. But he remains a master of sticking around 'til the end.
  12. Scott Riggs: 50-1 -- Hey, you gotta pick one storybook scenario. With a pickup team mainly of volunteers, he and new team owner Tommy Baldwin are doing it the old-fashioned, bootstraps way.



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