Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. will walk away the winner at Daytona 500
Hendrick's horsepower advantage should translate into a win at Daytona 500
The winner will need to get a little drafting help on the closing laps
Dale Earnhardt Jr. should win Daytona 500 if he doesn't make a big blunder
He pounded on the drums and she strummed the bass. NASCAR's first couple, Jimmie and Chandra Johnson, cut loose on Thursday night at a private party in a back room at Daytona's Arena Sports Café, playing the video game "Rockband." They jammed to Pearl Jam's "Alive," a song that could serve as the anthem this week for the entire Hendrick Motorsports team. Because even though the organization didn't win a restrictor-plate race last year for the first time since 2003, Hendrick appears poised to re-exert it superspeedway dominance on Sunday in the 51st running of Daytona 500. Yes, Hendrick Motorsports is very much alive.
The Hendrick foursome of Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have been the buzz of Speedweeks. Gordon won his qualifying race on Thursday while Earnhardt led the most laps in his; Little E likely would have taken the checkered flag if not for overshooting his pit box during a caution, a mistake that cost him valuable track position. There's little question that the Hendrick Chevys have a horsepower advantage over the rest of the field, and this advantage should translate into victory on Sunday.
On Thursday night I chatted with Carl Edwards, and even he acknowledged that his team, Roush Fenway Racing, will be facing an uphill battle. Edwards believes that he'll have a chance to win only if there's an extended green-flag run at the end of the race. "I hope it's one of those once in a 10-year deals that the last 50 laps of the race go green," says Edwards. "We can compete with anyone on those long runs. But if it's a short run to end the race, it could be tough for us."
The odds of a long green-flag run to end the race are long. In the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night and in both of the qualifying races on Thursday, late-race crashes brought out the caution flag. This trend is likely to continue on Sunday as the drivers get over-aggressive in the last 10 laps and someone ends up in the wall.
Every crew chief will then have to decide, Do I bring my driver to pit road for fresh tires or let him stay out to maintain track position? Tires have been wearing out particularly fast over the last week, so I'm guessing that if there's more than five laps remaining when the caution comes out, nearly everyone will dive onto pit road for a new set of Goodyears. This could allow a longshot to win the race if he stays on the track and can successfully block his way to Victory Lane -- someone like, say, Bill Elliott -- but it will be a tall task to keep the Hendrick cars from freight-training to the front.
My pick to win is Earnhardt. Seven of his 18 career wins have come on restrictor-plate tracks, and he's spent more time preparing for this race than any other driver. This offseason Little E practiced for Daytona for as many as six hours a day from the comfort of his living room in Mooresville, N.C., while playing the racing simulation game of iRacing, the most lifelike, authentic game on the market today. "Every ripple in the concrete at Daytona is replicated in that game," says Earnhardt. "I learned things about the draft and just how to get around the place on iRacing. I think it's really going to help me once the race gets started."
As long as Earnhardt doesn't beat himself by committing a blunder such as overshooting his pit stall, he should be in prime position in the final lap. A driver definitely does not want to be in the lead when the white flag flies. The ideal position is to be in second. If this is where Earnhardt is, he'll make his move along the backstretch on the final lap. He'll likely bolt to the highline and receive a drafting push from one of his Hendrick teammates -- and make no mistake, it will take help from a teammate to win this race -- to seize the lead as he charges into Turn 3. There, he'll pound the throttle and let his Hendrick horsepower carry him to Victory Lane.
This is how the race played out in so many of his simulation runs this offseason. Will reality mirror make-believe on Sunday? It says here it will.