Daytona 500 preview

Trevor Bayne: defending Daytona 500 winner.

Tomorrow, the first and biggest race of the NASCAR season rolls off for 500 miles in Daytona, Florida. Trevor Bayne, just 20 years old, introduced himself to the wider world with his surprising win a year ago, and although he ran a majority of his season on the second-tier Nationwide Series, he’ll be there tomorrow to defend his win. It will be an uphill battle for him to repeat, though: he starts in the 40th position.

Bovada (formerly Bodog) has a Bayne win at 16/1 and likes Kyle Busch (5/1), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (5/1), and Tony Stewart (7/2). Stewart is the defending Cup champion, and after reeling off five wins in the ten-race Chase (the playoffs) to win it all last year, it’s easy to see why he’s favored in the season-opener this year. Kyle Busch has been strong in the first half of the season the last few years, so it makes sense that he would be a favorite too. Cynics might see Earnhardt Jr. as a sucker bet up there, slotted because his popularity, which outpaces his performance, will net the house some easy money, but he never can be counted out, especially at a track like Daytona, which best suits his driving style and where he has won before, and especially because he drives for Hendrick Motorsports, the best team in the sport. Roush is the next best team, and two of their drivers– Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle– are starting first and second on Sunday and have to be considered strong contenders as well.

Finally, Danica Patrick may be the biggest story going into Daytona this year, as she makes the jump from open-wheeled racing to stock cars on NASCAR’s biggest stage. She’s in good hands working with Stewart, but other successful IndyCar drivers have struggled to make the transition, and one has to expect that it will take her time to adjust as well. Still, she’s finding early success. Everyone’s focusing on a very bad wreck that was not her fault during the final lap of one of the pre-race races (I know), but she starts a respectable 29th on Sunday and has the pole position for today’s Nationwide race, remarkable for any rookie driver.

The full starting grid is here, and the top ten looks like this:

1 99 Carl Edwards Ford Fastenal
2 16 Greg Biffle Ford 3M
3 14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet Office Depot / Mobil 1
4 17 Matt Kenseth Ford Best Buy
5 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet Diet Mountain Dew / National Guard
6 78 Regan Smith Chevrolet Furniture Row / CSX “Play it Safe”
7 9 Marcos Ambrose Ford Stanley
8 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet Lowe’s
9 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet Caterpillar
10 33 Elliott Sadler Chevrolet General Mills / Kroger

Other stories to read before tomorrow’s race:

  • How owner points deals determine who makes it into the 43-car field at Daytona – NASCAR.com
  • Two-time winner Bill Elliot’s backnot back – ESPN.com
  • How Tony Stewart spent his championship offseason – FoxSports.com
  • “Where have the Southern drivers gone?” – FoxSports.com
  • Why Danica Patrick can win – Yahoo! Sports
  • The latest on Jimmie Johnson’s “major” rule violation – Jayski
  • Blast from the recent past: Ex-driver Jeremy Mayfield says he’s the victim of a NASCAR conspiracy – ESPN.com
Finally, a programming note: ALDLAND will be hosting its first live-blogging event during tomorrow’s race. Check back here or on our new Podcasts & Live Blogging page for details.
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Big Ole weekend rundown: The rest

I don’t know why I keep making it sound like this Nebraska-Michigan game is the most massive tilt ever. It should be fun, but still. The game between these two new conference-mates needs a name, like the Corn Bowl, but it isn’t quite deserving of that just yet. Maybe the Toddler Bowl will work for now. (“My extra hatred for you is only semi-rational and based on the fact that, nearly fifteen years ago, we had to share something that I wanted all for myself because I hate sharing!”) This game will capture my attention because I will be there watching it, but in case you aren’t similarly piqued, here are three other things for you to keep track of this weekend:

  1. Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee: While Michigan and Ohio State no longer have their annual meeting this week, the ‘Dores and Vols are keeping steady on. What will be different this year when these two meet in Knoxville? For one thing, Vandy will be the favored team. Vegas is giving them a point on the road in the SEC, which is really something. UT is 0-6 in the conference, but they’ve cooked up hope of winning this one the only way they could: by pretending star QB Tyler Bray can make it back from a hand injury to play in this game. Vandy isn’t much better on paper– just 2-5 in the conference– but they were two missed plays from being 4-3, and they’ve done better than Tennessee against all common opponents. Vanderbilt must win in Knoxville this week or in Winston-Salem next week to be bowl eligible. The Vols, meanwhile, must win this game and their next one (against Kentucky) to be bowl-eligible and avoid a losing season. They also have to win this game to avoid being brought face-to-face with the undeniable recognition that they’re really bad. They’re going to lose, though, and everyone who’s been paying attention will be both glad and unsurprised. (For what the win can mean for the Commodores, read Bobby O’Shea’s post today at Vanderbilt Sports Line.) 7:00 pm, ESPNU
  2. Carolina vs. Detroit: The Cam Newton Roadshow rolls through the Motor City this weekend, and the Lions’ defenders are licking their chops, which is good, because the Lions’ offenders (that doesn’t quite work, does it?) are licking their wounds. With impressive statistical output that has failed to translate into wins, Newton has been a sort of inverse Tebow this season, and I don’t see this game as the one where the Panthers really put things together. On the other hand, Detroit has been looking less and less stable, successful, and inspiring the closer they get to their Thanksgiving Day meeting with the Packers. The Thanksgiving game is simultaneously a point of intense pride and an albatross for Detroit, and I’m worried that, as more cracks begin to show in their new-look image and play this year, doubt creeps in with the capability of reverting to the old, bag-on-the-head team we’re used to. Hanson kicks the Lions to an uncomfortable win in this one. 1:00 pm, FOX
  3. NASCAR Championship: It’s too tough to encapsulate an entire season (the longest in all of professional sports) into a quick hit here, but when this Sunday’s race at Homestead is over, NASCAR will have its first champion not named Jimmie Johnson in five years. Instead, it’s down to two drivers: Tony Stewart, who won the championship in 2002 and 2005– the last year before #48 went on his dominant streak– and Carl Edwards, the back-flipper who’s never won it all. Edwards holds an extremely narrow lead of only three points heading into this final race, which should make things very exciting. 3:00 pm, ESPN

Enjoy!