NASCAR picks pack: Daytona a good track for wild cards in need of a win

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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WHEN: July 7, 2012 | GREEN: Approximately 7:49 p.m. ET

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway

TRACK DESCRIPTION: 2.5-mile restrictor-plate superspeedway

BROADCAST: TNT | RACE LENGTH: 160 laps, 400 miles

The lowdown

Last week kicked off the race to the Chase for the Championship, the final 10 regular-season races before the playoffs begin, and the top 10 in points have separated from the pack. In 10th, Brad Keselowski's victory gave him a 34-point advantage over Carl Edwards and most importantly, it will give him a total of nine bonus points when the Chase begins if he remains in the top 10. Last year, he also had three victories at the end of the regular season, but since he was forced to take a wild-card spot, the bonus for winning races did not apply.

The next nine races will be focused on winning to a greater degree than Cup fans have seen in recent history. Only two of the drivers in the top 10 in points are winless so Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are focused on leveling the playing field once the Chase begins.

Edwards in 11th and five others currently inside the top 20 need victories to be eligible for wild-card status, and with NASCAR's focus on parity, it is possible that all of them could win at least once. It is easy to imagine any of the eight winless drivers in the top 20 in points scoring a victory this week, but in some ways the task will be even more difficult because there is so much competition.

This is a perfect weekend for the series to roll into Daytona with the focus on wild cards, because this is the biggest joker in the deck. With the exception of the start-and-park drivers, literally anyone can win a restrictor-plate race. In recent seasons, Keselowski and Trevor Bayne scored their first Cup victories on plate tracks racing for small teams with limited budgets. Last year, underdogs David Gilliland, Bobby Labonte and Dave Blaney finished in the top five at Daytona or Talladega, which meant they were one or two passes away from putting their name to the list.

10 best drivers at Daytona

Over the past six races at Daytona, these drivers have the best average finish.

1. Carl Edwards
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 11.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 17.27 in 15 attempts

Edwards' history on plate tracks has been filled with ups and downs. At the beginning of his career, he was incredibly crash prone and could trigger an accident regardless of where he was racing on the track or with whom he was drafting. A switch seemed to flip in the 2009 edition of the Coke Zero 400, however, and he has been much better since. He finished fourth in that event and then went eight consecutive plate races without being involved in another crash. Notably, his streak ended in this race last year when he crashed early in the race and ultimately dropped more than 35 laps off the pace. He suffered some crash damage in this year's Daytona 500, but rallied to finish eighth.

2. Matt Kenseth
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 11.33 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 16.72 in 25 attempts

Kenseth is one of the least emotional drivers in the field, or at least that is his persona behind the wheel. As such, he is virtually guaranteed not to be the one who triggers a "Big One" crash. That takes one variable out of the equation, but no one with more than a handful of plate starts has survived every race without someone else making a mistake in front of them. Kenseth was forced to retire in back-to-back superspeedway races at the beginning of last season, but he quickly bounced back with a runner-up finish in the Coke Zero 400 and a victory in this year's Daytona 500. For good measure, he added a third-place finish in the Aaron's 499 this May, which makes him one of the hottest plate racers in the field.

3. Paul Menard
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 12.83 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 23.00 in 12 attempts

Menard owns the longest active top-10 streak at Daytona. It is a testament to just how difficult this track can be to dominate that his streak is only three races long and also that none of those results are top fives. The No. 27 finished ninth and eighth in last year's pair of Daytona races and then finished sixth this February. In the same span of time, he hasn't been nearly as strong at Talladega, but then again he hasn't been all that bad with a pair of 12ths and a 17th. Menard could be one of the most pleasant surprises in the Coke Zero 400 field and if he wins this week, it would make him one of the leading contenders in the wild-card race.

4. Denny Hamlin
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 13.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 20.69 in 13 attempts

Hamlin has failed to finish a restrictor-plate race only twice during his career. Both of these instances came at Talladega in the fall 2008 and 2009 races and only one of them was attributed to an accident. That stat, plus the fact that he has the fourth-best six-race average finish at Daytona might lead one to believe that he has good luck on this type of track; but one would be wrong. Hamlin has suffered some crash damage in 58 percent of his plate starts. He has managed to remain on the lead lap a handful of times, but only once has he scored a top 10 after getting swept into an accident. If he has an error-free Coke Zero 400 Hamlin will do well, but that is far from a given this week.

5. Tony Stewart
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 14.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 16.67 in 27 attempts

Restrictor-plate superspeedways are not particularly good places to come when drivers need a strong showing. Stewart is currently 42 points ahead of 11th in the standings, which is almost one full race, and with a pair of victories to his credit there is no question that he will make the Chase. This team needs to regain some momentum nevertheless. Last year, they waited until the playoffs to turn up the heat, but they cannot count on lightning striking the same place twice. Stewart got off to a good start to the 2012 season with his two victories coming in the first five weeks, but he has been uneven all year. He has backed up one top 10 with another less than a handful of times this season and last week's fuel injection problem snapped his longest streak of three consecutive top fives.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 15.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 14.48 in 25 attempts

Junior nation is still buoyed by his Michigan victory and they know just how strong he is on plate tracks. For a four-year period in 2001 through 2005, he was the absolute master of Daytona and Talladega and he could score top fives without trying. Everyone wanted to draft with his No. 8 DEI Chevrolet and he had teammates capable of pushing him to the lead. That mastery should have continued with Hendrick Motorsports, but NASCAR's parity rules eliminated the ability to dominate for a while. Now that the multi-car draft has returned, so could Earnhardt's mystique and his second-place finish in this year's Daytona 500 could easily get elevated to a victory this week.

6. Kevin Harvick
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 15.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 15.05 in 22 attempts

If not for a blown engine early in the 2011 Daytona 500, Harvick would probably have the best current six-race average finish because he would need a result of only 17th or better to beat Edwards. Harvick's record at Daytona is one of the most consistent in the field. He has one win and three of his last five efforts on this track ended in seventh-place finishes, but the standout is that 42nd-place result after his engine expired. Talladega is a different track from Daytona, but the two are similar enough to make fans pay attention to how drivers run there and that will cause a little concern. Harvick crashed on lap 184 of this year's Aaron's 499 and he was nine laps off the pace at the end of last fall's Good Sam Club 500.

8. Kurt Busch
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 15.50 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 17.26 in 23 attempts

There are three types of tracks on which unlimited budgets take a backseat to driver skill. It is impossible to get unrestricted power to the wheels on short tracks and road courses, so these are known as drivers' tracks. Plate racing is a different animal, but the draft is a great equalizer because no one can circle the superspeedways fast without a partner. Busch has a knack for running well in plate traces and he has already finished in the runner-up position three times at Daytona. James Finch fields fast cars on this track type and won the 2009 Aaron's 499 with Brad Keselowski behind the wheel, but sometimes the sum does not equal the parts in NASCAR. Busch is driving over his head trying to prove himself in 2012 and so far that has resulted in accidents in both previous plate races.

9. Jeff Burton
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 15.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 17.46 in 37 attempts

Teammate Menard has the longest active streak at Daytona, but Burton has the longest streak on restrictor-plate superspeedways. He finished second in last fall's Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega, backed it up with a fifth in the Daytona 500, and finished 10th in the most recent outing in Alabama. Unfortunately, that is his only top-10 finish in the last 13 weeks and his average during that span is worse than 20th. Plate tracks play by their own rules, however, and if Burton is going to bounce back this is as good a place do so as any. His fifth-place finish at Talladega spurred the team to score three more top-10s in the final four races of 2011.

10. Greg Biffle
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 16.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 21.80 in 20 attempts

Biffle owes his position as one of the 10 best in average finishes this week to two races. He finished third in both the 2010 and 2011 Daytona 500s, but that does not mean that he has been particularly strong on plate tracks. Those are two of only three top fives that he has earned on this 2.5-mile superspeedway and he has only a pair of results sixth through 10th to accompany them. The highlight of his career was a victory in the 2003 Pepsi 400 and it was one of the strangest wins during the era of plate racing. Long green-flag runs are almost unheard of with multi-car drafts, but only two caution flags waved that evening, which allowed Biffle to stretch his fuel mileage and win his first Cup race.

10. Juan Pablo Montoya
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 16.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 21.09 in 11 attempts

Montoya was a strong dark horse in this year's Daytona 500 until he broke a part on his suspension and crashed into a jet dryer. That accident got the season off to an appropriately bizarre start and insured that the race, which was delayed until Monday for the first time in its history, ended on a Tuesday. In addition to making him the subject of a trivia question for years to come, the 36th-place finish nearly dropped him out of the top 10 in average points. He remains a solid sleeper this week because four of his five previous races ended in top 10s and that is surprising because this emotional driver often gets into trouble on unrestricted, intermediate speedways. Somehow, he manages to stay out of or minimize the damage in Daytona accidents, however.

OTHERS OF NOTE

16. Clint Bowyer
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 19.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 14.77 in 13 attempts

Bowyer is proof that the two restrictor-plate superspeedways are different. He has been extremely stout at Talladega with five consecutive top-10 finishes there that includes two victories and a second-place finish. His last six races at Daytona, however, feature only one top 10 and an average of 19th. His luck on this track hasn't been particularly good, but he was strong for a while. His single top 10 in the last six races came in the 2010 Daytona 500, which matched his career-best finish to date that was scored in the 2009 edition of that race. He missed the top 10 in this year's 500 by a single position and his fans believe he could rebound on Saturday night.

21. Martin Truex Jr.
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 22.00 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 21.50 in 14 attempts

Driving for DEI and Michael Waltrip Racing, Truex should have a better plate record than this, but Daytona and Talladega are two of his seven worst tracks in terms of average finishes. He has a worse average in Talladega, but that track features more highlights with four top-10 finishes. At Daytona, he managed to crack the top 10 only one time and that came in his inaugural attempt in the No. 56. Since joining this organization, he has not yet finished on the same lap as the leaders in the Coke Zero 400 and drivers cannot score strong finishes when they are that far back.

31. Jimmie Johnson
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 26.17 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 18.19 in 21 attempts

Daytona is Johnson's kryptonite. His last five races there have been terrible with a broken axle in the 2010 Daytona 500 and accidents in every race since. He finished on the lead lap in this race last year and that gave his fans a little hope entering the 2012 season. He managed to record only a 20th-place finish in last year's July race, however, and it was not enough to turn his luck around. In this year's Daytona 500, he crashed on lap one, never got back out on course, and was credited with a 42nd-place finish.

32. Brad Keselowski
Last six races average finish at Daytona: 27.67 in 6 attempts
Career avg. finish at Daytona: 30.14 in 7 attempts

In terms of average finishes, Talladega is Keselowski's sixth best track. A pair of victories in his inaugural attempt and again this spring show that he is capable of running well in plate races, but Daytona tells a distinctly different story. It is his second worst track and there is literally one reason for his struggles there. In six previous races, he has never gotten to the end of an event without some crash damage and the destruction was complete enough to send him to the garage early in half of his starts. He also failed to advance into his first Daytona 500. Keselowski has finished on the lead lap twice, however, and the good news is that both of these complete races came in July.

All Drivers: Last six races at Daytona
DriverAvg. finish (attempts)DriverAvg. finish (attempts)
1. Carl Edwards 11.00 (6)22. David Reutimann22.17 (6)
2. Matt Kenseth11.33 (6)23. Regan Smith23.17 (6)
3. Paul Menard12.83 (6)24. AJ Allmendinger23.33 (6)
4. Denny Hamlin13.67 (6)25. Landon Cassill24.00 (2)
5. Tony Stewart14.67 (6)26. Ryan Newman24.33 (6)
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.00 (6)26. Marcos Ambrose24.33 (6)
6. Kevin Harvick15.00 (6)28. Mike Bliss25.50 (3)
8. Kurt Busch15.50 (6)29. David Gilliland25.60 (5)
9. Jeff Burton15.67 (6)30. Trevor Bayne25.67 (3)
10. Greg Biffle 16.17 (6)31. Jimmie Johnson26.17 (6)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya16.17 (6)32. Brad Keselowski27.67 (6)
12. Kyle Busch16.33 (6)33. Bill Elliott28.33 (3)
13. Joey Logano17.17 (6)34. Travis Kvapil 31.00 (4)
14. Kasey Kahne 17.50 (6)35. Robert Richardson Jr.34.25 (4)
15. Bobby Labonte17.83 (6)36. Michael Waltrip34.75 (4)
16. Clint Bowyer19.00 (6)37. Dave Blaney36.00 (6)
17. Jamie McMurray 20.33 (6)38. David Stremme36.33 (3)
17. Terry Labonte20.33 (3)39. Casey Mears 36.60 (5)
19. David Ragan20.83 (6)40. Joe Nemechek37.00 (6)
20. Jeff Gordon21.83 (6)41. JJ Yeley39.00 (4)
21. Martin Truex Jr.22.00 (6)42. Aric Almirola41.00 (2)

Caution to the wind

Most caution flags: 16 (2011 Daytona 500)

Fewest caution flags: 0 (1962 Daytona 500, 1961 Firecracker 250, 1961 Daytona 500, 1960 Firecracker 250, 1959 Firecracker 250, 1959 Daytona 500) 8

Average number of caution flags per race: 4.6

Final Caution, last five races:
(The last five races at Daytona have all ended in green-white-checkered finishes)
February 2012: Lap 198 of 202 - 8-car accident on front stretch (Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Dave Blaney, David Gilliland, Ryan Newman, and David Reutimann).
July 2011: Lap 170 of 170, white-flag of green-white-checker, 15-car accident in tri-oval (David Reutimann, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Travis Kvapil, Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, Landon Cassill, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
February 2011: Lap 204 of 208 during green-white-checker, 4-car accident on backstretch (AJ Allmendinger, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Martin Truex Jr.).
July 2010:Lap 160 of 166 to force green-white-checker, 3-car accident in tri-oval (Kurt Busch, Elliott Sadler, and Sam Hornish Jr.).
February 2010: Lap 204 of 208 to force second green-white-checker 4-car accident on backstretch (Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Robert Richardson Jr.).

Most caution laps: 60 (2011 Daytona 500, 1968 Daytona 500)

Fewest caution laps: 0 (1962 Daytona 500, 1961 Firecracker 250, 1961 Daytona 500, 1960 Firecracker 250, 1959 Firecracker 250, 1959 Daytona 500)

Average number of caution laps per race: 23.1

Leading the way

Most leaders: 25 (2011 Coke Zero 400)

Fewest leaders: 3 (1972 Daytona 500, 1962 Firecracker 250, 1960 Firecracker 250)

Average number of leaders: 8.3

Most lead changes: 74 (2011 Daytona 500)

Fewest lead changes: 6 (2002 Pepsi 400, 1964 Daytona 500)

Average number of lead changes: 22.5

Victory Lane

Last five winners at Daytona (starting position):
February 2012: Matt Kenseth (4th)
July 2011: David Ragan (5th)
February 2011: Trevor Bayne (32nd)
July 2010: Kevin Harvick (1st)
February 2010: Jamie McMurray (13th)

Worst starting position for race winner: 39th - Matt Kenseth (2009)

A race at Daytona has been won by the pole sitter 17 times and from the front row 31 times in 107 races.

Active winners at Daytona

Jeff Gordon (6)
Tony Stewart (3)
Michael Waltrip (3)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)
Kevin Harvick (2)
Jamie McMurray (2)
Matt Kenseth (2)
Trevor Bayne (1)
Greg Biffle (1)
Jeff Burton (1)
Kyle Busch (1)
Jimmie Johnson (1)
Ryan Newman (1)
David Ragan (1)

First-time winners at Daytona

2011 Coke Zero 400: David Ragan
2011 Daytona 500: Trevor Bayne
2003 Pepsi 400: Greg Biffle
2001 Daytona 500: Michael Waltrip
1997 Pepsi 400: John Andretti
1994 Pepsi 400: Jimmy Spencer
1994 Daytona 500 Sterling Marlin
1990 Daytona 500: Derrike Cope
1985 Pepsi Firecracker 400: Greg Sacks
1970 Daytona 500: Pete Hamilton
1967 Daytona 500: Mario Andretti
1966 Firecracker 400: Sam McQuagg
1966 Daytona 500 Qualifier*: Earl Balmer
1964 Firecracker 400: A.J. Foyt
1964 Daytona 500 Qualifier*: Bobby Isaac
1963 Daytona 500: Tiny Lund
1963 Daytona 500 Qualifier*: Johnny Rutherford
* -- The Daytona 500 qualifiers were points' paying races in these years.

Daytona vs. Talladega (since 2009)

The restrictor-plate superspeedways are the most unpredictable courses on NASCAR schedule, which means that it is difficult to string long streaks of top 10s together. This affects the average finishes on these tracks and it is notable that only Matt Kenseth with a 9.86 at Daytona and Clint Bowyer with a 9.71 at Talladega are the only two drivers with single-digit averages.

DriverCombined Avg.AttemptsDaytonaTalladega
Clint Bowyer13.291416.869.71
Greg Biffle13.571416.7110.43
Carl Edwards14.141412.0016.29
Matt Kenseth15.07149.8620.29
Kevin Harvick15.431413.1417.71
Dale Earnhardt Jr15.711416.7114.71
Denny Hamlin16.791415.4318.14
Jeff Burton17.001417.4316.57
Juan Pablo Montoya17.211415.8618.57
Tony Stewart17.791413.7121.86
Paul Menard17.791416.4319.14
Kurt Busch17.931414.7121.14
Joey Logano18.501420.8616.14
David Ragan18.641418.7118.57
David Reutimann18.861420.7117.00
Kasey Kahne19.001419.1418.86
Brian Vickers19.701020.8018.60
Martin Truex Jr19.711420.4319.00
Mark Martin20.151321.0019.17
Kyle Busch20.211419.8620.57
Mike Bliss20.33425.5010.00
Jeff Gordon21.001420.5721.43
Jamie McMurray21.501422.7120.29
Brad Keselowski21.571430.1413.00
Bobby Labonte22.001418.4325.57
AJ Allmendinger22.791420.4325.14
Jimmie Johnson23.141426.8619.43
Trevor Bayne23.33625.6721.00
Marcos Ambrose24.071423.2924.86
David Gilliland24.501025.6023.40
Michael Waltrip24.751229.2021.57
Regan Smith24.931422.8627.00
Terry Labonte26.00721.2532.33
Casey Mears26.671233.0020.33
Ryan Newman27.001426.0028.00
Landon Cassill28.67624.0031.00
Aric Almirola28.80637.3316.00
Travis Kvapil29.501033.2025.80
Bill Elliott30.14727.0034.33
Robert Richardson Jr30.63834.2527.00
David Stremme32.63835.5029.75
Scott Riggs33.00225.0041.00
Dave Blaney33.501236.0031.00
Joe Nemechek36.791438.0035.57
JJ Yeley40.33639.0043.00
Beaver's Best Bets for Daytona

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has momentum on his side and loves the multi-car pack racing. He'll get his second victory of the season and the fans will rip the seats out of Daytona.

Dark horse top 10: AJ Allmendinger. One could pick nearly any dark horse this week, but I'll take the No. 22 team. They ran strong on plate tracks with Kurt Busch behind the wheel and the Dinger is coming off back-to-back top 10s at Sonoma and Kentucky.

Don't bet on it: Jimmie Johnson. He might not crash this week, but history suggest that he won't finish in the top 10 even if he stays out of trouble.

Beat Beaver -- Predicting the top 10

The scientific method I chose this week to make my Daytona 500 picks included a dart board, a quarter and a lucky rabbit's foot.

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2. Matt Kenseth
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Greg Biffle
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Jeff Gordon
8. Paul Menard
9. Jeff Burton
10. AJ Allmendinger

LAST WEEK'S PICKS

I didn't score all that many points last week, but I'm claiming success. Six of my top 10 picks finished inside the top 10 and one finished 11th, but without any exact matches I didn't get those bonus points.

For any driver correctly picked in the top 10, five points are awarded. For any driver picked in his exact finishing position, five bonus points are awarded. For correctly predicting the winner, a total of 20 points are awarded. So for a perfect top 10, a total of 110 points are available. One point is subtracted for each driver picked who finishes outside the top 10.

Predicted DriverActual FinishPoints
1.Jimmie Johnson65
2.Matt Kenseth75
3.Greg Biffle21-1
4.Kyle Busch105
5.Carl Edwards20-1
6.Dale Earnhardt Jr.45
7.Denny Hamlin35
8.Kevin Harvick11-1
9.Kasey Kahne25
10.Joey Logano22-1

Total points for Kentucky = 26 (out of a possible perfect score of 110)

Season best: 37 points (Charlotte, May); Season worst: 8 points (Pocono, June); Season avg.: 24.6 points (7 races)

For more stats and analysis, follow @FantasyRace on Twitter.

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