Editors note: Heavy rain postponed the Daytona 500 from Sunday to 7 p.m. Monday.
After a week filled with preliminary racing and practices, it’s time to get down to the business at hand: The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, which starts in earnest with the 54th running of the Daytona 500.
The season’s biggest race is always filled with surprises, making it hard to pick a winner. After all, who would have guessed that a 20-year-old rookie, Trevor Bayne, would have won in his first try last year?
But the races of Speedweeks have laid the groundwork and some favorites have emerged. There are a couple of things that seem somewhat certain: Ford has been working hard behind the scenes and this year seem to be leading the pack, followed close behind by perennial favorites Chevy.
Toyota and Dodge have been catching up, but still seem to be searching for speed. Narrowing the field down to the Fords and Chevys, several teams have risen to the top. Daytona is unlike any other race of the season, so the best way to look at favorites is to look at the top two drivers behind the wheel for those respective car makers.
Roush-Fenway Racing is the cream of the crop so far. Carl Edwards took the pole last Sunday with his teammate Greg Biffle close behind in second. Barring disaster in the final practices, they’ll make up the front row. Both drivers looked strong in Thursday’s Gatorade Duel qualifying races, but it was Roush-Fenway driver Matt Kenseth who stole the show, passing Biffle on the last lap to win the second Duel.
In the Ford camp, among the Roush-Fenway drivers, Edwards and Kenseth are the top picks. After all, Edwards was second here last season and Kenseth won the Daytona 500 in 2009. Behind the scenes, in personal conversations with me, Edwards has voiced a confidence I haven't seen in some time. He feels good about his equipment and, so far this week, has backed that up. After finishing fifth in his Duel Thursday, Edwards’ confidence only grew.
"It was crazy,” Edwards told Covers.com. “We are going to have fun though. It is going to be a good race. I am glad we got through all this and we are starting on the pole. I got a ton of experience today.”
Among the Chevys, the biggest story of the Daytona 500 would be a win by fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt is winless in his last 129 races but has shown that he may be ready to win again this week. He led laps in the Bud Shootout, qualified third last Sunday (missing a spot on the front row by a few tenths of a second) and was second in Thursday’s first Duel. Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and seems to be on a mission to repeat that this Sunday.
While Earnhardt Jr. has a Daytona 500 win, the other Chevy favorite doesn’t. Tony Stewart has won everything but the 500 at Daytona. He has won three summer races here, three Shootouts and scored his third career Duel win Thursday. Stewart has his eyes on the big prize and could easily add a Daytona 500 victory to his resume.
Looking for a dark horse? Look no further than Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose, in a Ford, has been a quiet contender all week and could be a surprise winner Sunday.
Kurt Busch vs. Kyle Busch: The brothers Busch have been strong this week, but neither has shown the endurance to seal the deal. Kyle could steal the show, like he did in Saturday night’s Shootout, beating Stewart to the line in the closest finish in the event’s history. But, just like how the Toyota’s have lagged behind this week, so has Kyle and his brother Kurt in a Chevy. However, look for Kyle to come out ahead in this matchup.
Jimmie Johnson vs. Jeff Gordon: Both Hendrick Motorsports drivers were favorites coming into the week, but neither has shined as expected. Each has won the Daytona 500 before, but Johnson seems to want to make a strong statement. He finished third in his Duel Thursday, while Gordon finished behind him in eighth. Expect a similar result Monday.
Carl Edwards +1,200
Matt Kenseth +2,000
Dale Earnhardt Jr. +1,000
Tony Stewart +900
Marcos Ambrose +1,200
Greg Engle is editor-in-chief of the popular NASCAR blog, CupScene.com.