Daytona 500 Preview: Everything, Yet Nothing

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With the Speedweeks build-up, not one but two rounds of qualifying and the exhibition Budweiser Shootout race we should have everything we need to predict the winner of Daytona 500 more accurately than any other NASCAR race of the year.

However, it's the exact opposite.

Between doing battle with the unknowns of a new season, the lottery that Restrictor Plate racing presents and the rule changes brought in for the race, we, frankly, haven't got a clue.

But what do we know exactly has the last fortnight taught us?

Well, this is no radical new world of NASCAR.

The Hendrick Chevrolets are still among the class of the field – two of them have annexed the front row and a third will start just behind them after Jimmie Johnson won his Gatorade Duel qualifying race.

However, they are by no means guaranteed the victory on Sunday, as a flock of other teams have already announced their challenges. Richard Childress Racing and their engine partners Earnhardt-Ganassi have been strong throughout the weeks at Daytona. Kevin Harvick won the Budweiser Shootout, and all bar one – Jeff Burton, after his tyre blowout – of their five drivers will start in the top 15.

The Duels were also saw a strong showing for Penske. At time all three of their drivers were inside the top five, though they faded towards the end of the race. They will be the only Dodge bodied cars in the race and so are the only ones who can benefit and continue the makes strong recent history in the 500 which has seen them capture more top-10s than any other manufacturer.

The other set-up that has looked particularly strong are Ford. Kasey Kahne, running the new FR9 engine, at that could be the downfall of the Roush-Yates-Petty challenge. After Thursday's race Kahne's crew chief, Kenny Francis, confirmed the no.9 car will swap back to the old engine for the race, but confirmed that there were several new powerplants due to used in the race, though he did not name which cars would be running them. How the new, or old, engines will affect the car in the race could be crucial at a race where horsepower is key.

The final thing of note are the very ends of the duels, when both races were won by inches, both by the car on the lower line. And if I've spotted it, then you can wager your house that so have the drivers, spotters and crew chiefs.

Whether this is a product of the larger restrictor plate or not I can't tell you, but it is interesting to note how else the increase in horsepower has possibly affected the racing.

The biggest change has been we have not seen the return of the 'two car hook-up' tactic that was so crucial in the recent plate races, most notably, last Spring's race at Talladega when Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards paired off against Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman in the race that ended with Edwards flipping through the tri-oval.

Despite fears there has been no sign (yet) of the massive accident predicted in the wake of NASCAR relaxing controls on bump-drafting. There have been minor scrapes in races and several smaller accidents in practice, but the largest accidents of Speedweeks is still the multi-car pile-up in the first practice for the Shootout.

Have the drivers learnt from their mistakes and established where the limits are?

Or have they been cautious, not wanting to damage their primary cars before the Daytona 500?

My bet is little of the first, with a big chunk of the second thrown in. No matter what the answer there will be a 'Big One' on Sunday with 43 cars on track and a million dollars on the line any caution will be forgotten, the only question is when, where and how many drivers will be involved.

That is perhaps the only certainty in the Daytona 500.

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