It's finally over. Nearly three months after last season's thrilling finale, in which Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended in a points tie, Speedweeks are underway. It started with the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night, when Kyle Busch took the checkers in what proved to be the return of pack racing. Now, as we move into the two qualifying races for the Daytona 500, the Gatorade 150s, anticipation is high and expectations are soaring for the lead-up to NASCAR's biggest event.
Daytona International Speedway, simply known as the "World Center of Racing", was built by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. over 50 years ago, 1959 to be exact. It has featured the same dimensions since it was originally paved. The speedway is 2.5 miles long, with a steep 31 degrees of banking in the turns. The tri-oval and back straightaways are 18 and 3 degrees, respectively. The short straightaways linking the tri-oval with turns 1 and 4 are slightly steeper, at 6 degrees. As with the sport's only other superspeedway, Talladega Superspeedway, pit road speed limit is 55mph.
The first race of a season always bring many questions. Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola, A.J. Allmendinger, David Ragan, and more have changed their rides during this past offseason. Will these drivers improve over their 2011 campaign, or is a downfall about to happen??? Crew chiefs such as Darian Grubb, Steve Addington, Drew Blickensderfer, Todd Berrier, and many more will be atop the pit box of what was considered one of their rivals in 2011. The past 3 months have been eventful and dramatic, as drivers were fired due to temper issues, new wheelmen were taken in to drive, and crew chiefs have been moved around like chess pieces on a board.
One unique thing about Speedweeks that no other NASCAR race week has is the two races to determine starting position. With most races, there is one qualifying session, in which the fastest over a period of two laps start up front. The Daytona 500 has that same session, but only the top two drivers are locked in. Everyone else must compete in one of two short 60 lap sprints, based on whether your qualifying speed put you in an even or odd starting position. For example, the 3rd, 5th, and 7th fastest drivers would be in race 1, while the 4th, 6th, and 8th fastest drivers would line up for race 2. The highest finishers in each Gatorade 150 will line up in the inside and outside lanes for the 500.
As for Fantasy picks, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are musts. Harvick has finished in the top 7 in seven of the past 9 Daytona races, including two wins and two more podium finishes, all while leading over 11% of his laps, a series-best.. Busch, along with winning on Saturday, has recorded top fives in 3 of the past 4 races here, the only exception being an 8th at last year's 500. Paul Menard and Juan Pablo Montoya are also very safe picks, too. Menard is the only driver in the series to have 4 consecutive top twenty finishes, along with having the best average finish among full-time drivers. Montoya has a series-best 3 top tens since 2010, with three top 5s along the way.
Many practice sessions are in store for the next few days, with the first two taking place on Wednesday the 22nd at noon ET. The first of the two Gatorade 150 qualifying races starts at approximately 2:00pm on Thursday, February 23, followed immediately by the second. More practice occurs on Friday the 24th, also at noon. Happy Hour practice is on Saturday the 25th at 10:30am. The green flag of the main event and the official kickoff to NASCAR's 2012 season, the Daytona 500, is at approximately 1:29pm on Sunday the 26th. All sessions will be broadcast on Speed Channel, except the 500, which is on FOX.