‘Smoke’ begins season on fire in opener
It’s not very often that a three-time Sprint Cup champion is considered a dark horse to win NASCAR’s most prestigious race, but in 2014 Tony Stewart will provide motor sports with the feel-good story of the spring.
“Smoke” is one of NASCAR’s most outspoken drivers and on Sunday, he’ll give fans another thing to talk about by overcoming his injury, shaking off the rust and winning the Daytona 500 for the first time in his career.
Stewart’s 2013 season came to an end prematurely when he broke his leg into two pieces during a race in August. He’s had three surgeries, lost 20 pounds and had a titanium rod in his surgically repaired right leg.
A win at the one of the sport’s most prestigious race after the injury would be a great story.
Stewart has won 19 times at Daytona International Speedway, second only to Dale Earnhardt, but none of those checkered flags have come at the Daytona 500. He’s raced at the 500 a total of 15 times.
And with a 1-15 record, Stewart can move on to setting up a Richard Petty vs. Danica Patrick matchup and winning Daytona 500 No. 2 next year.
— Albert Alvarado
10 years later, Earnhardt gets win No. 2
There are lots of reasons to bet against Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Denny Hamlin is on top of his game right now, Jimmie Johnson is the defending Daytona 500 champion, Matt Kenseth is a two-time winner and Austin Dillon and Danica Patrick are both expected to be some of the field’s big surprises.
But Earnhardt has a deeper connection to the race than anyone.
Thirteen years ago, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed during a last-lap crash at Daytona International Speedway, infamously linking both father and son forever to the hallowed track.
In 2004, Earnhardt avenged his greatest personal loss by winning the Daytona 500.
He has been close to repeating the feat in recent years, finishing second three times in the last four years, but he has not been able to clinch the checkered flag again.
Nevertheless, he is always in the mix, and this year should be no different.
Perhaps it has to do with simply being on the sport’s grandest stage or maybe there is more to it, but, for whatever reason, Earnhardt always excels at Daytona.
— Clay Whittington
Keselowski and Penske a winning combo
The winner of the 2014 Daytona 500 will be Brad Keselowski.
First, the guy talks trash. And this is the year of the trash-talker. (See “Richard Sherman.”)
Second, Roger Penske signed Keselowski to a racing contract that runs through 2017. If you know racing, you know the name Penske. And Penske is a winner. That the zillionaire thinks Keselowski can ride is enough for me.
Third, Keselowski races with an edge, an attitude. He takes risks. He has plenty of enemies. Carl Edwards doesn’t like him. Kyle Busch doesn’t like him.
What does all that mean? That Keselowski is doing his job well. As the great George Halas once said, “If an athlete doesn’t have any enemies, he’s not doing things right.”
Fourth, Keselowski is due. He has yet to win racing’s grand event. But he’s getting close. In last year’s Daytona 500, Keselowski was in the middle of two crashes.
And he still finished fourth.
So I’m picking the trash-talking, Penske-backed, enemy-collecting Keselowski. He’s due.
— Allan Mandell
Junior returns as king of Daytona
Sitting in Tiger Arena in Glen Rose, as I prepare to cover a playoff game between Harker Heights and Flower Mound Marcus, I write this with five minutes of knowledge on the world of NASCAR.
The Daytona 500 is Sunday and it is time to predict a winner.
I’m going with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
One, because I know who he is.
And two, because my exhaustive research tells me he is due for a win in Daytona Beach.
Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500 in 2004 and hasn’t won since.
I have to admit that is a long time.
I was a sophomore in high school when that happened.
But Earnhardt has suffered multiple close defeats in the 500 since and may be primed to finally finish on top.
The same logic applies to Tony Stewart, who is still seeking his first win in the 500.
But I like Earnhardt, after years of knocking on the door, to finally return to the top in Daytona Beach.
— Jordan Mason
Bowyer continues big year for Kansas
Picking a Daytona 500 winner is about as futile as playing roulette.
I mean there are, what, 43 cars in this thing?
At least in roulette I can pick red or black, odd or even, 1 to 18, 19 to 36, etc.
Sure, the better drivers have the better chance, but it’s still a crapshoot. Somebody could be dominating, only to blow an engine or get taken out innocently by another driver’s wreck.
Then there’s the surprise factor. Who in the world thought Trevor Bayne was going to win three years ago?
Tony Stewart is overdue for his first Daytona win. Junior is always the fan favorite. Jimmie Johnson is the best driver.
I’m going to shamelessly plug my home state of Kansas. That means my pick is Clint Bowyer.
Why? It’s a Kansas year. Wichita State is the last remaining unbeaten team in college basketball. Kansas is a legit Final Four contender and Kansas State will make the Sunflower State 3 for 3 in NCAA tourney bids.
So I’m picking my boy from Emporia.
— Mark W. Miller