NASCAR starts the season with its biggest event, partly because of tradition, and partly because it's a race they have the most time to prepare for. Nobody likes to finish second in this race, which has always made for an interesting final few laps on the famed 21/2 mile oval in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The trend to make these cars go faster this year has been to break off in pairs as was the case in the Bud Shootout last week, the qualifying races Thursday and the Nationwide race Saturday. It should be no different Sunday. It might not be quite as exciting on that last lap, when you could have a driver running 15th still have a chance for the win. If they're running Noah style (2 by 2), there's not likely going to be seven or eight pairs with a shot for the win. There will likely be three, four, or possibly five and that will favor the more experienced drivers.
So, here we go with the first predictions of the year on who will finish in the top five.
1) Jeff Gordon - he's been good all week and he's got plenty of partners.
2) Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Yes, he's got to start from the back, but that's not a big deal on this track and he understands how to draft as well as anybody.
3) Tony Stewart - Winning the Daytona 500 is the one big feather missing in his NASCAR cap.
4) Michael Waltrip - He won't be driving a lot this year, but he does know how to get around Daytona and it would be no surprise to see him finish up front.
5) Regan Smith - Yes, there's always a chance for a bit of a long shot to win this thing (see Derrike Cope as example A). Smith seems to have a knack for drafting. His biggest issue is that the veterans might like him to be a pusher, but not a passer.
Who I should've picked, but didn't, probably Kurt Busch. He's figured out the drafting too and looked good in his qualifying race win. He then declared himself one of the favorites for Sunday, which, well, let other people do that Kurt. So for that reason alone, I couldn't pick him this week.
Next we go to the season predictions for the top 12 who will qualify for the Chase for the Championship. So here goes.
1. Jimmie Johnson - A stunning pick, I know. I picked him in the NASCAR media poll, so it wouldn't be very upright of me to pick him there and not here. He's the king of the hill and until someone finds a way to knock him off, I've got to pick him.
2. Kevin Harvick - He just needs a little more consistency and a slightly cooler head and he could very well win the title. He's got the right team and the talent, no question.
3. Denny Hamlin - Very easily could have won it last year. He knows how to win, now he just has to learn how to grind out that fifth or sixth place finish when things are going wrong.
4. Tony Stewart - He's the last guy not named Jimmie Johnson to win a Sprint Cup title. He'll challenge again as he wants to become the first owner-driver to win the title since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
5. Jeff Gordon - He's really due to win the title. He would have had another one under the pre-Chase for the Championship rules, but that's not the way the game is played these days.
6. Carl Edwards - He finished on a hot streak winning the final two races last year. He and Delco native crew chief Bob Osborne might have things figured out.
7. Kyle Busch - He had a frustrating season in 2010 that included a lot of just simple bad luck. Maybe it's time for him to have some good luck.
8. Kurt Busch - You can't pick one shrub without picking the other. He's good on these restrictor plate tracks and the short tracks, but the chase has a lot of those in betweeners he's yet to completely figure out.
9. Clint Bowyer - He appeared to get off to a good start in the Chase last year, only to have his team get caught cheating. The team and driver are too good not to make the top 12 this year and maybe try to prove a point once they're in it.
10. Juan Pablo Montoya - He should have the heavier car figured out now, he's just needs to understand there are times when it's just as beneficial to let off the gas instead of plowing into the guy in front of him. He's talented and really wants to win, which is good to see. But you can't win'em all and he may be learning it's OK to take that eighth place finish rather crashing a car that's not capable of winning on that particular day.
11. Jamie McMurray - OK, he would've made it last year as these final two spots go to the drivers with the most wins of guys not in the top 10. If he can just stay away from appearing in soap operas, maybe he'll make it in this year.
12. Brad Keselowski - A big of a long shot for sure, here. But he knows how to win and I liked that he pushed his brother into a spot in the Daytona 500 in the qualifying races. Maybe that bit of unselfishness is a sign of better things to come.
Something important to remember is the results of the Daytona 500 have little bearing on what the rest of the season will look like. ... Would've loved to have picked Junior to make the top 12, but he's at a point in his career where he has to prove himself again. ... Kenseth, Biffle, Newman and Reutimann and Kahne are the others who could sneak into that top 12. .. Would love to see Brian Vickers make the Chase after missing much of last season due to blood clots.