Daytona 500 Preview

One of the great spectacles of American sports goes Sunday, when NASCAR kicks off another Sprint Cup Series with the Daytona 500 (1 PM ET, Fox). If it’s time to talk NASCAR, that means it’s time for me to pick up the phone and call my brother Bill, who’s already provided some insights on the Top 20 drivers for the season overall. This morning I sought him out for some thoughts specific to the Daytona.

The Daytona is one part of an overall weekend of top racing here in Florida—between NASCAR and NBA All-Star weekend in Orlando, the Sunshine State gets its own personal stimulus package. The Truck Series goes Friday and the Nationwide Series runs Saturday. According to Bill, those of us who are more casual fans can be understand this by thinking of them as the Double-A and Triple-A of the circuit, while the Sprint Cup is the big leagues. With one caveat—Sprint Cup drivers are known to drive at the lower levels. Recently a rules change prevented a driver from competing for more than one championship, a provision known as the “Kyle Busch Rule”, as he was once gunning for all three titles. But even though they can’t run at the top spot in the minor leagues, big-league drivers can still run in selected races.

When it comes to Sunday’s main event, Bill advises us to expect the unexpected. “It’s such a crapshoot,” he told TheSportsNotebook. “Any superspeedway—Daytona or Talladega is a great equalizer.” It’s not just the length of the track that renders things like Carl Edwards’ pole position to be all but meaningless, but the 43 cars with all their turns make a crash all but certain. “You don’t know who’s going to be involved in the Big One, Bill said. “And there is going to be a big one, at least seven or eight drivers will get taken out.”

As Bill described the dynamics of Daytona, it made me think of the Kentucky Derby. With 20 horses jostling for position (as opposed to the 7-10 that usually run), the Derby is known for its longshot winners and even good horses go off at favorable odds. Daytona is an even more dramatic example of this phenomena. Jimmie Johnson, winner of five straight Sprint Cups from 2006-10 is available at 12-1 odds. Tony Stewart is priced the same. Edwards, who finished second by a nose in last year’s overall championship and has the pole, is 15-1. And these are the favorites!

So I asked Bill that if he happened to be sitting in a lounge at Caesar’s in Las Vegas, having a little breakfast, and saw the odds, what would he do? “I wouldn’t make a bet,” he said. “It’s too hard to predict ton the superspeedways” Now Bill may be a sharp analyst and a clean-cut young man, but he obviously doesn’t know the mind of a sports degenerate, so I’ll help him out and jump in here with a pick. When all bets are off, go with your heart. Matt Kenseth is at 20-1, and you can try Danica Patrick at 100-1. Step up to the window and take a small bet at those odds.

Last year’s Daytona fit the pattern Bill describes. Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere to win it. Let’s buckle it in and see what happens this year.