Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Avoid The Overrated

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Well, another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season is about to start with quite possibly the most unpredictable race of the year, considering we get to see the cars on track a lot more than the other events. From the Sprint Unlimited (results here) to the Budweiser Duel Races (Race #1 results, Race #2 results), we’ve witnessed these guys racing a lot already–and that’s not even taking into account the practices. Personally, I don’t even take those things into account. Last year your starting position meant a lot, but with the new rules in place, once again it doesn’t matter where you start on these super speedways. If interested, the starting lineup can be found by clicking here.

Top Ten Contenders For The 2014 Daytona 500

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Honorable Mentions

Michael Waltrip made the field for this year’s Daytona 500 despite wrecking in the Duel race on Thursday, and he’s always a “lower” driver to consider when we get to Daytona. In addition to his 5th-place run here in the July race last season, Mikey finished 9th in the 2012 summer race here. He’ll start from the rear of the field on Sunday and would be an excellent value pick in NASCAR.com’s Fantasy Live game. Joey Logano is slowly becoming the driver we expected him to be when he was expedited up into the Cup Series a few years back. He finished 19th and 40th at Daytona here last season–his first with Penske–but ended up 3rd, 9th, and 4th in his last three Daytona starts at Joe Gibbs Racing. As I’ve said before, I like the Fords at Daytona and Talladega. Nobody really knows how Tony Stewart is actually going to race on Sunday, his first official start since breaking his leg last year. Historically “Smoke” has been a better pick in the summer Daytona race, so I’d stay away from him this weekend, and until further notice until he gets a couple good runs under his belt. Ryan Newman has long been known as a driver who hates the plate races, but he’s on a three-race streak of top 10 points-paying finishes here at Daytona and moved over to Richard Childress Racing during the offseason, an organization known for having a strong restrictor plate program. “The Rocketman” provides an excellent choice for an “off-sequence” pick this week. Finally, Danica Patrick was actually quite strong in the plate races in 2013. At Daytona specifically she finished 8th and 14th. With one full Cup season under her belt, you have to think she’s going to improve–at least a little bit…right? Imagine the media love fest if Danica wins the Daytona 500 (note: I wouldn’t bank on that happening but you never know).

Sleepers/”Outside The Box” Picks

David Gilliland – David Gilliland is a very good driver at restrictor plate tracks, and because the field is so even at them, he makes a decent fantasy pick, especially in the deeper leagues. Most will remember Gilliland finishing 2nd in the spring Talladega race last season, but let’s look at the overall scope of things with this #38 team. In the last seven restrictor plate races, they have posted a top 15 finish in five of them. Even some of the top tier Sprint Cup drivers haven’t been that consistent. He’s nowhere near a lock but if you’re looking for an off-sequence pick (for some reason only 3% of teams have Gilliland on their roster in the Yahoo! game as of Thursday) the #38 should be at the top of your list.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – Call it rookie luck or what have you, but Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was always the afterthought sleeper when it came to restrictor plate tracks in 2013. Although the 2013 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year hasn’t posted a top 10 finish at Daytona yet, he did wind up 3rd in the fall Talladega race and never ended up worse than 13th at the four restrictor plate tracks last season. I don’t have the numbers but I’m sure not many drivers have been able to accomplish that feat on these wreckfest race tracks. This will be Ricky’s third career Daytona 500 start and he has finished 20th and 12th in his first two attempts at The Great American Race.

Austin Dillon – It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it? The first time the #3 car is on the track since the death of Dale Earnhardt and Austin Dillon puts it on the pole. It’s almost like when Junior went on to win in that summer Daytona race in 2001. Last season, we saw that track position was actually a little important at Daytona; Danica Patrick won the pole and ended up finishing 8th by basically just riding around all day. I don’t think Austin Dillon will be able to do that this Sunday, but it still doesn’t hurt that he starts up front. In Cup action, he has just two starts on plate tracks with a best finish of 26th. Last year in the Nationwide Series, Dillion posted top 10s in two of the three restrictor plate races.

Avoid The Overrated

Denny Hamlin – This team has to be holding their heads high. They won the season-ending race at Homestead last November and came here to Daytona, took the win in the Sprint Unlimited last weekend, and then grabbed the victory in their Duel race on Thursday, too. So what’s not to like? Over the last four Daytona points-paying races, Denny has the 4th-best average driver rating and has led the 3rd-most laps (110), right there behind Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. What’s not to like is the fact that Denny Hamlin has just one top 10 finish in his last eight points-paying starts at Daytona, as well as the fact that history is not on his side. When we race at places like Daytona and Talladega, sometimes you have to find odd reasons to pick (or not pick, in this case) a driver. I crunched the numbers and the last ten Sprint Unlimited winners have an average finish of 17th in that year’s Daytona 500–with three of the ten finishing 30th or worse. Furthermore, the last ten Homestead winners have went on to finish, on average, in 20th in the next season’s Great American Race. If you take out Carl Edwards’ 2nd-place run in 2011, there hasn’t been a top 10 posted by the Homestead winner at Daytona three months later. His Sprint Unlimited win should bump up the percentage of people who pick Denny Hamlin this week, but I’d stay clear of the #11 Toyota on Sunday.

Trevor Bayne As far as the “lower-tied” and/or part-time drivers go, Trevor Bayne is always a popular pick on the superspeedway tracks–and why not? He won in his first career Daytona 500 start back in 2011 and the Wood Brothers always have a strong engine underneath the hood of that #21 car. Putting all of that aside, let’s look at the facts. The 2011 season was when we had the “tandem racing” at the plate tracks. We don’t race like that anymore so it’s not all that surprising that since his win–not to discredit the victory or anything– Trevor Bayne hasn’t been able to finish better than 20th at Daytona in a Cup car. At Talladega, it doesn’t get much better as he has an average finish of 25th in the six races he has ran. Until I see another good run out of Bayne in a Cup car, I’m staying away from him at the plate tracks.

Jimmie Johnson – The six-time Sprint Cup champion swept the races at Daytona last season, so a lot of people will be picking him in fantasy this week–and on that point I don’t blame you. Plus, it’s Jimmie Johnson we’re talking about. However, that high percentage of teams taking the #48 might be a good reason not to take him. If JJ wrecks and you don’t have him, that’s a great opportunity to gain points on the competition. Also, you have to take into account the fact that Johnson only has four finishes better than 20th in the last fifteen points-paying races. I wouldn’t blame you for picking the #48 this week, but in most leagues (especially allocation ones) I wouldn’t recommend it at all.