NASCAR Daytona 500 Practice Recap: 5 Drivers to Watch
I'm introducing a new article this season, and it is basically going to be a closer look at five or so drivers that stand out during the practice sessions before each race. In some cases, this may simply reinforce that the pre-race favorites indeed have some of the fastest cars. However, some of the drivers that impress on the practice charts may not have the same history of success at a particular track. These are the drivers that could end up being strong sleeper options, and they are the drivers that could end up making the difference in winning or losing a fantasy championship over the course of the year.
Ironically, the Daytona 500 is probably one of the worst races to have to introduce this new article for. The restrictor plates used at the track basically put every car on the track on an equal playing field, and as a result, the practice times this weekend just aren't nearly as good of a predictor of what to expect during the race as they are most weeks. Not to mention the fact that there are so many practice sessions during the Speedweeks that several drivers don't even run them all. On the flip side, it is never a terrible thing to have an idea of which drivers have been putting down fast laps on the track, and with that in mind, let's take a look at five drivers to watch based on the final practice sessions for Sunday's Daytona 500.
1. Tony Stewart: He is no stranger to running up front at Daytona, and Stewart could be heading to another strong showing at the track. During the second practice session Friday afternoon, he posted the fastest lap of the 22 drivers that participated. With 19 career wins at Daytona and a series-leading 12.5 average finish at the track since 2003, Stewart was already one of the top fantasy options before Speedweeks even began. After topping the charts with the cars in race trim, there is little doubt that he should be a factor for the win if he can avoid the big wrecks along the way.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's most popular driver gave the fans something to cheer about Saturday when he topped the charts in the final practice before Sunday's Daytona 500. He was also solid on longer runs in the session, posting the sixth-best 10-lap average speed. Junior is a former Daytona 500 winner, and two of his seven restrictor plate wins have come at the track. He has always been one of the best in the business at working the draft, and armed with a fast car, he is even more dangerous. After finishing second in two of the last three Daytona 500s, Junior could be ready to get over the hump and back to Victory Lane. As many fantasy owners probably already expected before cars even hit the track, Junior is a threat to win this weekend.
3. Kasey Kahne: Although he has never won a Cup race at a restrictor-plate track, Kahne appears to have a car capable of changing that Sunday. In Friday's later session, Kahne posted the third-fastest lap. More importantly, he posted the best 10-lap average speed, showing that is car was handling comfortably in the draft over an extended stretch. Kahne has quietly been having a strong Speedweeks, and he actually finished second in his qualifying race Thursday. He has also finished seventh or better in his last three July races at Daytona. Based on the speed he showed during practice Friday, Kahne could be ready to deliver the same type of performance in season opener at the track. He has top-five potential this weekend.
4. Clint Bowyer: Bowyer is no stranger to running well and winning restrictor plate races, but up until now, his success was basically limited to Talladega. He could be on the verge of changing that this weekend after putting down some impressive laps in Happy Hour Saturday. Not only did Bowyer log the third-fastest lap of the session, but he had the fifth-best 10-lap average speed, as well. Bowyer's car appears to have solid balance in the draft, and that is going to help him get to the front and help him protect his position when he gets there. Owners have become used to Bowyer delivering like an elite option at Talladega, and he looks ready to do the same at Daytona. At the very least, Bowyer should be considered a solid addition to fantasy rosters, and he has serious upside.
5. Danica Patrick: There is a long list of reasons why she is a risky pick. She is inexperienced in stock cars in general, especially in Cup cars. She is also trying to become just the 10th driver in 55 Daytona 500s to win from the pole. On the flip side, Patrick's car is fast. It was fast during qualifying when she was by herself, and it was still fast in practice Friday when she posted the third-fastest lap and the second-best 10-lpa average speed. In fact, Patrick was so confident in her car that she didn't even take part in Saturday's Happy Hour. Is she a longshot? Yes. That being said, there is always room for sleepers on fantasy rosters, and at a track like Daytona where just about anyone can win, Patrick has a chance to make some noise.
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