By Jared Turner
In the Super Bowl, two teams have an opportunity to win.
In the Super Bowl of NASCAR – the Daytona 500 – the number of contenders is far greater.
Thanks to the horsepower-choking restrictor plates that keep drivers bunched in tight packs all day long at Daytona and Talladega and erase the advantages normally held by NASCAR’s top teams, numerous drivers enter the sport’s biggest race with at least a fighting chance of ending the day in Victory Lane.
In fact, as rookie Trevor Bayne proved with his shocking Daytona 500 triumph for Wood Brothers Racing in 2011, Daytona’s coveted Harley J. Earl trophy is within reach of virtually everyone.
It’s just a matter of reaching out and grabbing it – and having a fast car and some good fortune, too.
“It’s a roulette wheel. It really is,” said 2004 Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch, one of several top drivers still seeking their first taste of Daytona 500 glory. “Daytona, Talladega, it’s unique teaching people that don’t know a lot about NASCAR and how different Daytona and Talladega really are (from other tracks), and yet so much preparation goes into these cars. I mean, they’re beautiful cars with the most man-hours put into them.
“Wow, what do we do with restrictor-plate racing? It’s just that different, the way the racing is. There’s strategy, there’s drafting. A lot of it is luck, being in the right place at the right time.”
But how many cars does Busch think actually have a chance to win The Great American Race?
“I honestly believe if you’re in the Daytona 500 and 50 cars tried to make their way in,” Busch said, “the ones what made it in are competitive and they deserve the right to be in the race because they raced their way in, and they’ve got a shot at winning.”
Denny Hamlin, another elite driver who like Busch has come painfully close to winning the sport’s biggest race only to always be denied, doesn’t buy into the idea that almost everyone in the race is capable of being out front when the checkered flag waves.
“Everyone says, ‘Everyone has a shot here,’ but realistically you’ve got to have half sense to win these superspeedway races, and it took me like eight years to figure out how to win one,” said Hamlin, who has won at Talladega but never captured a points-paying race at Daytona. “Realistically, there’s probably 20 guys that have the mental capacity to probably win the race. Anyone can do it if things work out perfectly for you, but if all of the cars are still on the racetrack at the end of the race, 20 are smart enough to put themselves in the position to actually win the race, I believe.”
Greg Biffle, a veteran driver who as a rookie prevailed in the annual July event at The World Center of Racing but has never snared a Daytona 500, doesn’t agree with Busch that practically everyone has a shot to score big in the season opener. But he’s also not persuaded, as Hamlin is, that just half the field is really in the hunt, either.
“Probably 35 of them at least,” Biffle said. “What happens is the closer the cars get on speed, the harder it is to pass. It is funny, we have always worked to have the cars so equal, so everyone is the same, but then you can’t pass. If everyone is the same, the guy in the front has the advantage. You need some discrepancy in the speeds of cars in order to create passing and racing.
“You definitely want to be in the front. It is obvious that is where you want to be. It depends on how the end of the race shakes out.”