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This Week in Auto Racing February 23 - 26

5:32 PM, Feb 22, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Get ready for what is expected to be a wild four days of racing at Daytona International Speedway, culminating with Sunday's Daytona 500.

NASCAR

Sprint Cup Series

Daytona 500 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL

This year's Daytona 500 is shaping up to be another thriller, perhaps more breathtaking than last year's season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Why?

After what we saw in last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, the pack is back and the two-car tandems are pretty much gone at Daytona. And the drivers as well as the fans are happy to see the big draft return.

"This is a lot more fun than the two-car stuff was," reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart said after finishing second in the Budweiser Shootout. "I still like the open motor races better where we can literally control our own destiny, but this is by far a lot better than what we had with the two-car stuff."

Since the most recent restrictor-plate race -- last October at Talladega Superspeedway -- NASCAR has made numerous modifications to the Sprint Cup cars, including alterations to the restrictor plates and the front grille openings. NASCAR anticipated the changes would drastically reduce the number of two-car breakaways and bring back the packs.

The Budweiser Shootout featured three big crashes, including the final one that involved eight cars. Jeff Gordon endured the worst of that incident when his car got turned upside down and then flipped several times before it came to rest on its roof along the backstretch.

Kyle Busch remarkably bounced back from two near wrecks and then beat Stewart to the finish line by inches to win the preseason, non-points race at Daytona. Busch made a sling-shot pass on Stewart for the lead coming out of the final turn of the last lap.

Stewart begins his title defense at Daytona with a lot of new faces on his team this year, including crew chief Steve Addington.

Three months ago, Stewart won at Homestead-Miami Speedway and finished the season in a points tie with Carl Edwards. Stewart captured the title by virtue of his five wins for the season -- all of them coming in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Edwards had only one victory for the year -- Las Vegas.

As of now, Stewart is tied with Bobby Allison for the second-most race wins at Daytona with 16. Stewart has three wins in both the Coke Zero 400 (July Sprint Cup race) and the Budweiser Shootout as well as two victories in the Gatorade Duel. He also has six Nationwide race victories and two in IROC events at this track.

But Stewart has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 13 attempts.

"Two tracks we haven't won at and the Daytona 500 we haven't won at everything else we have pretty much accomplished in this sport that we want to accomplish," Stewart said. "It's the biggest race of the year. Everyone wants to win that race. I won't say that it is not a complete career if you don't win it, but there is a lot of priority on this. Darrell Waltrip and Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. both had to go a long time before they got it."

It took Earnhardt 20 attempts to win the Daytona 500. Waltrip's first win in this race came after 17 years of trying.

Edwards' lap at 194.738 mph during last Sunday's time trials earned him the pole position for the 54th running of the Daytona 500. Edwards has now accumulated 11 career poles in the series, including one last November at Homestead.

"It feels really nice," he said. "This is our second pole in a row. Feels nice to pick up right where we left off."

Dale Jarrett is the last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole, doing so in 2000. Edwards' best finish in this race is second, which came last year.

There have been 11 different drivers who have won the Daytona 500 since 2000. Trevor Bayne is the defending race winner. One day after turning 20 years old, Bayne shocked the auto racing world by taking the checkered flag for NASCAR's most prestigious event of the season. He did it in just his second Sprint Cup start.

Can Bayne pull off another stunning victory in the Daytona 500?

"That's the plan," he said. "We wouldn't have come if we didn't think we could win. There's a little bit more pressure this year. We're not exactly flying under the radar, but I think we can go for it, that's for sure."

If Bayne wins Sunday's race, he would join Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) as those drivers who won back-to-back Daytona 500s.

The Daytona 500 also will mark the highly anticipated debut of Danica Patrick in Sprint Cup. Patrick is guaranteed a starting position in the race, since her No.10 Tommy Baldwin Racing team is in the top 35 for owner points. TBR recently formed an alliance with Stewart-Haas Racing to assure her a spot in the race.

"I have a fast car, so I think that's taken care of, but I think it's going to take some good breaks and a patient race, staying out of trouble," Patrick said. "You know it would be nice to kind of keep toward the front. I've found that when you are up near the front, away from the thick of things, you're much less likely to be caught in an accident that smoke is filled the air to and you can't miss or you can't see. But I think luck is going to play a big factor."

Patrick will become the third female to start the Daytona 500, following Janet Guthrie (1977 and '80) and Shawna Robinson (2002).

Gatorade Duel -- Daytona International Speedway -- Daytona Beach, FL

Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona -- the twin 150-mile qualifying races -- will set the starting field for the Daytona 500. With 49 teams entered in "The Great American Race," six of them will not make it into Sunday's big show.

Last weekend in Daytona 500 time trials, Carl Edwards won the pole, while his teammate, Greg Biffle, secured the outside pole to give Roush Fenway Racing and Ford the front starting row. These are the only drivers who have locked down their starting positions in the 500-mile race. Edwards will lead a field of 25 cars to the green flag in the first qualifying race. Biffle will start first in the 24-car field for the second event.

The top 35 in last year's owner points are guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500. Three drivers -- David Stremme, Tony Raines and last year's race winner, Trevor Bayne -- finished outside the top 35 last season, but they are warranted a position in the Daytona 500 based on their qualifying speeds. Terry Labonte, the 1984 and 1996 Cup champion, also is assured a spot if he has to use a champion's provisional.

Therefore, 10 drivers will vie for the four final positions in the Daytona 500.

Michael Waltrip, Michael McDowell, Mike Wallace and Robby Gordon will attempt to make it into the Daytona 500 when they compete in the first qualifying race. Waltrip has competed in the Daytona 500 each year since 1987 (25 consecutive races). He won it in 2001 and '03.

Kenny Wallace, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek, Bill Elliott, Robert Richardson Jr. and J.J. Yeley will try to race their way in during the second qualifying event. If Labonte races his way into the Daytona 500 during the qualifiers, then Elliott, the 1988 series champion, is assured a starting spot with at least the champion's provisional.

Elliott has 28 Daytona 500 starts to his credit.

The odd-number starting positions for the Daytona 500 will be based on the finishing order of the first qualifying race, and the even-number starting spots will be determined by the outcome of the final qualifier.

Nationwide Series

DRIVE4COPD 300 - Daytona International Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL

The 2012 Nationwide Series season gets underway on Saturday with the 300-miler at Daytona International Speedway.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also begins his campaign for a second straight championship. If Stenhouse can defend his title this year, he would join Sam Ard (1983-84), Larry Pearson (1986-87), Randy LaJoie (1996-97), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1998-99) and Martin Truex Jr. (2004-05) with back-to-back Nationwide titles.

In a NASCAR media poll released last week, Stenhouse was selected as the preseason favorite to win the Nationwide title.

"We're ready for another championship," he said. "Our Nationwide Series season starts this week, and I think we have worked on a few things that we needed to work on during the offseason and want to start out strong this year."

Stenhouse has made four Nationwide starts at Daytona, posting two top-10 finishes.

While Stenhouse remains in the No. 6 car, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate, Trevor Bayne, moves over to the No. 60 this season. Carl Edwards had been the driver of the 60, but Edwards has no plans to compete in Nationwide this year, as he focuses more on his Sprint Cup Series efforts.

Coming off his championship season in the Camping World Truck Series, Austin Dillon has graduated to Nationwide, driving the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing. Danny Stockman will serve as Dillon's crew chief after guiding him to the truck title last year.

"Everybody is looking forward to getting to Daytona and to get the first race behind us," Dillon said. "Once we get the first race behind us, we have three races in a row, so that's something new for me. In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, you get a month off, but in the Nationwide Series, we are going racing. It will be fun. We're prepared and ready to go."

Dillon has already made 11 Nationwide starts, with his best finish of third coming last July at Nashville.

Danica Patrick is set to compete in the full 33-race Nationwide schedule this year. Patrick, driving the No. 7 car for JR Motorsports, has three Nationwide starts at Daytona. Her finishes there are 10th, 14th and 35th.

"I've raced (at Daytona) more than any other track, and I did that on purpose, because I want to do well in the big races, and Daytona is a big race," she said. "The more experience I have at a place like this, the better off I am."

Patrick's boss in Sprint Cup, Tony Stewart, will attempt to win the Nationwide season opener at Daytona for the fifth consecutive year. Stewart also won the February race at this track in 2005 and '06. If he takes the checkered flag for this event, he will tie Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s record for most Nationwide wins at Daytona with seven.

"That's a pretty cool feeling to know we've closed in on something (Earnhardt's) done at Daytona," Stewart said. "To me, that was his playground. You just watched him play with the guys here. He was the best at that place. To even be remotely close to him in the record books, in anything at Daytona, is very humbling."

Stewart is one of nine Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also is entered. Earnhardt Jr. has six wins at Daytona as well, most recently in July 2010.

Fifty teams are on the preliminary entry list for the DRIVE4COPD 300.

Camping World Truck Series

NextEra Energy Resources 250 - Daytona Int'l Speedway - Daytona Beach, FL

The 2012 Camping World Truck Series kicks off Friday night at Daytona International Speedway.

With 2011 truck champion Austin Dillon now a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series, Johnny Sauter, who finished six points behind Dillon last year, is the preseason favorite to win the title.

Sauter concluded last season by winning the rain-shortened race at Homestead- Miami Speedway. During the offseason, Sauter's team, ThorSport Racing, switched from Chevrolet to Toyota.

"The biggest thing we can do is look back at last season and see where did we lose points and what could we have done to prevent that," he said. "I think coming out in 2012 with the Toyota support and changing manufacturers, new sponsors -- essentially my whole team is back and my crew chief (Joe Shear Jr.), I feel like we can pick up right where we left off and ultimately try to win races and a championship."

Rookie Ty Dillon is next in line as a title contender in the series this year. Dillon, the 2011 ARCA Racing Series champion, is replacing his elder brother, Austin, in Richard Childress Racing's No. 3 truck. Ty, who will turn 20 years old Monday, made three starts in trucks last season. His best finish of third came last November at Texas. He also placed sixth at Homestead.

"I think we can go out there and do our best to be competitive each week," Dillon said. "We went to a lot of tracks last year on the ARCA Racing Series schedule that we had never raced before and brought home some good finishes. I think with the help of my RCR teammates, we'll be able to put up more good finishes this season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series."

Ron Hornaday Jr., the four-time truck champion, makes his debut with Joe Denette Motorsports. Hornaday had driven for Kevin Harvick Inc. for the past seven years, but KHI shut down its Nationwide and truck operations at the end of last season.

"It was just three months ago that I didn't have a job," Hornaday said. "KHI was closing their doors, and I was at a crossroads. I was introduced to (team owner) Joe (Denette) through Hermie Sadler, and the rest is history. Joe is a true race fan, and all he wants to do is win. I believe he has put the right people in place and has given this team all the tools they need to get the job done."

Hornaday holds the series record with 51 race wins, but has to score a victory at Daytona. The series has been competing at this track each year since 2000.

Brad Keselowski is the only Sprint Cup regular competing in this race. Ward Burton, the 2002 Daytona 500, is making his first start in a NASCAR national touring series event since October 2007.

Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

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