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Posted: Thursday February 17, 2011 11:33AM ; Updated: Friday February 18, 2011 12:17PM
Daytona 500 Predictions
Racing writers Cory McCartney, Lars Anderson, Tom Bowles, Bruce Martin, Brant James and Tim Tuttle make their predictions for this year's Daytona 500. (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)
 
Who will win the Daytona 500?
 
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
McCartney
Kevin Harvick - There may not be a hotter driver in the series right now than Harvick (pictured at right) when it comes to restrictor-place races. Between the preseason Shootout, two more stops at Daytona and two trips to Talladega last season Harvick had three wins, a second-place and a seventh-place. Over the last four Daytona races no driver has scored more points than Happy. The surface has changed, but given Harvick's recent restrictor-plate performances, he remains a viable threat to reach Victory Lane.

Anderson
Kevin Harvick - Over the last three years, Harvick has proved to be the best restrictor-plate racer in NASCAR. He won the 500 in 2007 and last year he won two of the four plate races, including the July event at Daytona. Oh yes, there's also this: 10 years after Dale Earnhardt died at the track, Harvick will be piloting the Intimidator's old car, which would make a Harvick victory one of the most memorable stories in recent NASCAR history.

Bowles
Clint Bowyer -I'm real tempted to go with Kurt Busch, especially after sweeping the Shootout and his Gatorade Duel. But four-car Richard Childress Racing has been the strongest during Speedweeks, figuring out the engine cooling issues better than anyone while producing the most raw speed. Of the four, I think it's Bowyer who has the most to prove (and the car in position to do it): and let's not forget, he scored his first ever plate race victory at Talladega last Fall. After coming up just short to Burton on Thursday, I see him beating teammate Kevin Harvick to the line on Sunday to score the victory.

Martin
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. - Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will finally end his 93-race losing streak because it's a storyline NASCAR needs the most to help get it back to the prominence it once enjoyed. With so much focus on the 10-year anniversary of his father's death, Dale Jn. winning would be a fitting conclusion. The reshuffling of crew chiefs and crews at Hendrick Motorsports in the offseason was made with the intention of improving the performance level of Earnhardt's operation. Steve Letarte has moved over from Jeff Gordon's team and is Earnhardt's crew chief. A fresh start for both will pay off with a victory at Daytona.

James
Jeff Gordon - The four-time Sprint Cup champion has been surpassed in titles (5) and mojo by his teammate and friend, Jimmie Johnson. He turns 40 this year. But he has a new crew chief (Alan Gustafson) and no shortage of motivation. He still knows his way around Daytona, where's he's won six times, half in the 500.

Tuttle
Kevin Harvick - Kevin Harvick is restrictor-plate master and Richard Childress Racing has a superior car/engine package for the plate races. Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin clicked last year on the setup and the strategy, winning in the spring at Talladega, the July race at Daytona and finishing second in the fall race at Talladega. Harvick led the Daytona 500 for the green-white-checkered finish in 2010, but finished seventh in the wild conclusion. In nine Daytona 500 starts, Harvick has five top-5 finishes.
 
Biggest storyline to follow in 2011
 
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR
McCartney
Jimmie Johnson's latest bid for history - Honestly, is there any other story to follow in the Sprint Cup Series than Johnson (pictured at right) gunning for his sixth consecutive title? Of course it's become a broken record of sorts for the "Anybody But the No. 48" camp, but until someone actually ends J.J.'s reign, his unprecedented dominance of the series remains Cup's defining storyline.

Anderson
Can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson? - Johnson won his unprecedented fifth straight championship last season. What was most impressive was that Johnson didn't even have the fastest car for the majority of the Chase; Denny Hamlin did. But Johnson won the title by avoiding wrecks, not panicking behind the wheel, and taking chances only when he had to. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus will be very, very hard to beat this season.

Bowles
Will Jimmie win a sixth title? - Crew chief Chad Knaus is right; the guy is underappreciated. If he can win a fifth during a down year ... what's going to happen when the No. 48 bounces back?

Martin
Can NASCAR boost television ratings and attendance? - While the sport remains the most popular form of motorsports in the United States, NASCAR's days of sellout crowds and high television ratings have been on the decline since 2004. Before that, the sport had been on an impressive upward climb since 1979. What NASCAR has to be careful of is not overreacting to the challenging climate and continue to make changes that can bring more fans to the race track and even more viewers on television.

James
Jimmie Johnson era - Five titles in a row. Why not six?

Tuttle
Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. find happiness and success at Hendrick? - This will be his fourth season with the team and he's missed the Chase twice. Earnhardt departed Dale Earnhardt Inc. with the ambition of moving to a team that could provide the resources to win a championship and he hasn't come close. Owner Rick Hendrick has left no stone unturned (with the exception of breaking up the championship-winning duo of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus) in support of Earnhardt. Steve Letarte is Earnhardt's new crew chief and it raises the question: If Letarte couldn't win a championship with Jeff Gordon, how is he going to do it with Junior?
 
Team with the most to gain with a strong start at Daytona
 
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
McCartney
Roush Fenway Racing - They ended the season red-hot as Carl Edwards (pictured at lower right) won the last two races and overall, the quartet of Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan combined for 18 top-10 finishes during the Chase. Did they tap into something after a so-so first 26 races they can carry into this season? Daytona could be a strong litmus test.

Anderson
Roush Fenway Racing - Last year Roush ended the season on a roll, with Carl Edwards winning the last two races of 2011. If Roush can come out of the gate with a win at Daytona, it will send a clear message to the rest of the garage that RFR will be a serious contender for the championship-something it wasn't last season.

Bowles
Carl Edwards and Co. - He ended the year with two straight victories, all the momentum and seemingly the sport's best hope to derail Jimmie Johnson in 2011. If he follows it up with a victory here, all eyes will be squarely focused on the No. 99 going forward.

Martin
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the No. 88 team at Hendrick Motorsports - A strong start to the season is essential if Earnhardt Jr. is going to have a successful season.

James
Roush Fenway Racing - Veterans Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth ended the 2010 season on an upward arc, notably with Edwards' wins in the final two races. But Edwards has just three top-5s at Daytona, Biffle won the summer race in 2003, but has just one other top-5 in 16 starts. Kenseth won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 in 2009, but has been otherwise average. A strong showing here suggests Roush Fenway may be ready to open a new front and press Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Tuttle
Casey Mears and Germain Racing's No. 13 Toyota - They're outside the top-35 in points from 2010 and have to race their way into the 500 in the Duel 150 on Thursday. Germain has a major sponsor in Geico for 18 races, including the initial eight this season, and they need to come out of the first five in the top 35 in points. Germain wants to run the entire season and a solid showing at Daytona would shore up the Geico deal and help the team find the funding that's missing. For Mears, its an opportunity to re-invigorate his career after driving in only 21 Cup races last year.
 
Team with the most to lose with a poor showing at Daytona.
 
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
McCartney
Hendrick Motorsports - Will the Great Crew Chief Shuffle payoff? A refresher: Alan Gustafson was with Martin and now he's atop Jeff Gordon's pitbox, while Gordon's ex-crew chief Steve Letarte is teaming with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Lance McGrew goes from Junior's pit boss to Martin's. It could be a magic move by Rick Hendrick (pictured at right), a guy who makes few bad ones, but a disastrous 500 would certainly place seeds of doubt for all three teams.

Anderson
Richard Childress Racing - No team devotes more time, energy and resources to restrictor plate racing than RCR. This reflects the philosophy of the team's top driver from a decade ago, Dale Earnhardt, who loved winning on the sport's biggest, fastest tracks. I spent a lot of time with Kevin Harvick this offseason, and he dearly wants to win to honor the Intimidator.

Bowles
Kevin Harvick and Co. -A strong restrictor plate racer, Harvick led the most laps in last year's 500 and set the stage for regular season dominance. I think that early self-confidence was key to getting out of the box running, and especially with the way RCR has run this Speedweeks any type of DNF or poor finish would linger in the No. 29 camp more than most.

Martin
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports - If he doesn't do well at Daytona, then he has to pick up his game at tracks that follow on the schedule. Team owner Rick Hendrick went to great lengths in the offseason by trading crews and crew chiefs to give Earnhardt what may be his last best shot at becoming a contender again.

James
Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines - That's not a NASCAR team per se, but an engine consortium that supplied the power plants that won all four restrictor plate races in 2010 (two by Kevin Harvick, one each by Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray).

Tuttle
Travis Kvapil and Front Row Motorsports' No. 38 Ford - Bob Jenkins owns Front Row and self-sponsors the team through his many Long John Silver franchises. The team wants to find other sponsorship to boost its budget and become more competitive, and can't afford a bad 500 to do that. It needs the exposure, credibility and points and it needs a big paycheck from the purse.
Driver most likely to wreck at new higher speed Daytona
 
Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
McCartney
Marcos Ambrose - Ambrose (pictured at right) had two DNFs last year at Daytona and if the surface, like Harvick has said, is "a narrow Talladega," that would spell even more trouble for the Australian. Ambrose crashed out last year at 'Dega, giving him three DNFs on superspeedways in 2010. Restrictor-plate racing simply remains a trouble spot for the road-course specialist.

Anderson
Brian Vickers - Usually the driver with the most inexperience crashes out. But because there won't be any rookies in this year's field, I'll go with Brian Vickers, who missed most of last season with blood clots. Vickers swears that returning to the car has been as easy as getting back on a bike, but the jury is still out on how quickly the art of restrictor plate racing will come back to him once the green flag flies.

Bowles
Steve Wallace -Rusty's son is making his Cup debut despite never having even winning a race in the Nationwide Series. Wrecking in Thursday's Duel race, these are his first laps in a Cup car, he's known for his problems finishing races and doesn't have a teammate to lean on for assistance. You mix that combination together, and only one thing's going to happen...

Martin
Steve Wallace - He is guaranteed a starting position in the Daytona 500 because Rusty Wallace, Inc. was able to get the points from Sam Hornish, Jr's effort at Penske Racing last year. Steve Wallace crashed a lot in the Nationwide Series and is a likely candidate to continue that trend in the Daytona 500.

James
Ryan Newman - Daytona International Speedway has been all banana peels and trap doors for Newman, well except for when he won the thing in 2008. He's wrecked out of four of 18 starts here, some in spectacular fashion, and destroyed five cars here in race activities the last two years, according to the team.

Tuttle
Steve Wallace - Skill and experience in the draft will be the biggest factors rather than a jump in speed in the wrecks that undoubtedly will happen and take outstanding drivers out. It's a guess based upon Wallace's inexperience -- this will be his first start in Sprint Cup and that's a baptism under fire.
 
Daytona 500 Predictions: Part 2: SI experts weigh in on this year's Daytona 500

 
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