All it took was thirty seconds of hype prior to the cars making their first competitive test runs of the season Friday -- in preparation for Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout -- for me to realize how much I truly missed NASCAR racing. When the cars finally got out to do their first few laps, I think I was actually more thrilled than I was for last weeks Super Bowl, and that‘s just for practice. We haven’t even seen them race yet.
It didn’t take long for the eventual fastest lap of that first session to happen, either, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. took it and ran. It’s safe to say that his first three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports have been, well, let’s just say not as good as many had hoped. But this year, the millions in the Junior Nation can restart their hopes again as Dale Jr. has a new crew chief and has a new garage-mate in Jimmie Johnson. And then he goes off and start the season with the top practice times?
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s remember that Earnhardt Jr. also won his first race with Hendrick in the 2008 Budweiser Shootout. But there is optimism to be had for sure beyond all the positives he has coming into Daytona Speedweeks which is the uncertainty of all the new changes.
The new surface makes this years events at Daytona, and beyond, a completely different ball game than what we have witnessed in the past. In the first practice alone, despite this years restrictor plate cars having up to 40 horsepower less than 2010, Earnhardt Jr.’s top speed was over 6 mph faster than Jeff Burton’s top speed from the first practice last season.
The other hope for Junior is that Hendrick looks to have their best plate program since 2007. All four of the Hendrick cars were fast during the first practice session with them taking three of the first four top fastest speeds.
One of the main things that stood out over both practice sessions is that at times, two cars drafting together were faster than the standard draft train we’ve seen over the years. Junior and Johnson were working well together for the later half of practice and between the four cars, they may be onto something for both Saturday night and in next week’s Daytona 500.
Despite how sharp all the Hendrick cars looked, we still can’t pass the crown yet until anyone outside of an EGR engine wins a plate race. Kevin Harvick has won the last two Shootouts and won two of the plate races last year. Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 and was barely beat by Harvick at Talladega. Clint Bowyer barely beat Harvick at Talladega in the fall and he’s using that same exact chassis Saturday night.
What could derail the Childress and Ganassi cars could be the changes to the car such as a smaller restrictor plate, changes to the front end, spoiler, tires and then the surface itself. There are a lot of unknowns here like we haven’t seen all at once before and it wouldn’t be surprising if the most well funded team in NASCAR, Hendrick, was ahead of the game like they were when the COT was introduced.
The car that has looked the best throughout pre-season testing and Friday’s two practice sessions is Joey Logano’s. He’s got a few plate races under his belt now and comes off the final 10 races of 2010 with seven top-11 finishes. His Joe Gibbs teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, have looked great as well over the same span.
In the short 75 lap format, Busch would seem to have an edge just because of his natural style and instincts to go all out. They haven’t fared him well in this race in the past, maybe because he accentuates those traits, but look for a more reserved new Kyle Busch this season beginning with the Shootout.
I don’t advise anyone to wager too much on this race, but I do advise on watching closely to what happens. What we see Saturday night will be very similar to what see next week where there’s big money to be made by taking a chance on a few of the long shots.
Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car -- or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.
Budweiser Shootout (75-lap non-points race) Daytona International Speedway Saturday, February 12, 2011 - 5:10 pm (EDT)
Top 10 Driver Rating Following All Daytona Practice Sessions
Preseason Test Best
Bud Shootout Practice 1
Notes: Won at Talladega, the last restrictor plate race run at; using the same chassis Saturday.
Notes:Consistent times throughout all testing and practices; his style suits the short format well.
Notes:Won the last two Shootouts as well as winning two plates races during 2010 season.
Notes:He may have the best car of the bunch, but lacks plate race seat time to rank him No. 1.
Notes:Two-time Shootout winner with 10 top-5 finishes in 17 starts; plate program much improved.
Notes:Plate race specialist; finished within top-3 in the last two Shootouts; won Daytona 500 in 2010.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Notes:Two-time Shootout winner with a new crew chief and shares Johnsons' garage; Look out!
Notes:Won Shootout as a rookie in 2006; had a great pre-season test and practiced well Friday.
Notes:The best driver to never win a plate race, including the Shootout. He'll need friends to help.
Notes:Won the Shootout in 2005; he was hooked up with Earnhardt Jr. throughout the first practice.
* The Sprint Cup teams tested out Daytona's new surface, changes to the car and tires in January. The listed speeds are their two best performances in any of the five sessions they participated in.