Being lucky better than being good
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Asked to handicap Sunday's Daytona 500, it only made sense to speak to the Emmy Award-winning experts from "Sport Science" on ESPN. If they can break down what it takes to land a triple cork on a snowboard and how the speed of a black bear compares to that of Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester, then surely they can tell us who will win the Great American Race.
They provided a lot of interesting information, such as how the new pavement at Daytona International Speedway is 2 inches thicker than the old, how the smoother surface means more grip and how tire wear could last twice as long as the 40-lap average in 2010.
But when it comes to who will win, throw science out the window.
"If you run that race 100 times in 100 days you'll have 100 different winners," said John Brenkus, the host of the show.
It's not like the Super Bowl, where if the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers played 100 times one team might win 75 percent because it simply is better.
At Daytona, being better isn't as important as being lucky.
There are too many variables, from teams gambling on no tires to engines overheating because two drivers stayed in a two-car draft too long to being caught in somebody else's wreck to simply being in the wrong spot on the track coming off Turn 4.
You can't even get drivers to agree on where they want to be heading to the checkered. Some say third is the optimal spot, as it was for Kurt Busch in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, even though both of Thursday's qualifying races were won from the lead.
"Essentially what's great about the sport is it's management of making sure nothing goes wrong," Brenkus said. "What are the odds of nothing going wrong? It's so out of your control. If you run it 100 times it's like doing a chaos computer model.
"It never turns out the same twice. Of all the things that could go wrong, you're never able to dodge those bullets two consecutive times."
How many people, for example, picked Jamie McMurray to win a year ago? And had there not been two green-white-checkered finishes he wouldn't have won. Had there been a third who knows who would have taken the checkered. Maybe Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second because he had fresher tires.
You could go with the conspiracy theory on handicapping this race. Since it is the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death, and since his son had the fastest car on Pole Day until a wreck in practice forced him to start in the back, a victory for Junior would fall into the conspiracy category that some skeptics swear by.
Those who believe in this theory will point to Earnhardt winning the July Nationwide Series race at Daytona in a special No. 3 Wrangler car honoring his father as Exhibit A.
"If anything like that was going on in this sport it would be so hard to hide it," Earnhardt said. "Don't you think? You guys would uncover that s--- in no time. And the risk and fallout of that, they'd never recover if anybody ever found out or any kind of fix was found in this sport."
Last year's champion, McMurray, was 12-1 to repeat.
And five-time defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson was listed at 14-1.
Kurt Busch also was a 14-1 pick when those odds came out, but they have to be improving after he won the Shootout and first qualifying race on Thursday.
"Yeah, I would say we're hard-pressed not be the favorite," said Busch, who has a chance to become the first driver to win the 500, Shootout and qualifying race.
The weather may play the biggest role. With temperatures expected in the mid-70s, and with changes NASCAR made to make the cars run hotter in two-car tandems that created speeds of 206 mph in the Shootout, you could see a lot of blown engines if drivers try to push the limits of the draft.
As one engine specialist said after reminding his organization spent more than $100,000 building cooling systems that the governing body made obsolete, "There could be a lot of ticked-off engineers if that happens."
"It's almost a necessity to do that style of drafting if you don't want to get lapped in 20 laps," Earnhardt said. "We're just going to have to do it. The guy who can take care of the motor the best, swap before your temperature gets too hot [has the advantage].
"The first thing I'd be worried about starting in the back is just not finding a good partner and getting lapped early. Losing the draft is real easy to do sometimes in these cars if you don't get good starts."
Just ask Matt Kenseth, who fell a lap down in about 12 laps because he didn't have a partner in the Shootout.
Hamlin says the two-car draft has leveled the playing field, that it has taken away the advantage drivers such as Earnhardt, Stewart and Jeff Gordon developed as draft masters.
Nobody knows for sure what will happen until Sunday, the first time there will be 43 Cup cars on the track since Speedweeks began.
If post-change practices and Thursday's qualifying races won by Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton are indications, two-car drafts will remain the story. When a reporter told Burton she was trying to figure out what will happen with a full field, Burton responded, "Me, too."
"You want me to tell you what's going to happen?" Burton added. "We're going to have about 400 miles of some stuff happening, and we're going to have 100 miles of more stuff happening than you can keep up [with]. We're going to have six or seven cautions in the last 100 miles. A short race 'til the end of the checkered. That's what's going to happen.
"It's my prediction it will be the same Daytona 500 we've had the last six or seven Daytona 500s. It's going to be different getting up to that point. But when somebody has a chance to take the Daytona 500 trophy home, you do things that you weren't going to do 100 laps before that. It's the same thing every time we come down here."
Now that that's settled, what will happen on the last lap? Most agree unless something changes the leader coming to the checkered will be a sitting duck despite Thursday's results.
"As long as the push is in effect, the guy pushing has the advantage," Johnson said. "Kurt showed us all something in the Shootout, that the second group has a shot as well. I say you either want to be second or third."
The role of the spotter has become more important than ever regardless because of what they call the "flip," a maneuver to swap positions in the two-car tandem that drivers will make every three to five laps for the most part, depending on how hot the cars are running. Some teams are letting one spotter call the move for both drivers, with both drivers communicating with each other to make the transition easier.
Because the driver pushing can't see anything but the front car's rear spoiler, he basically is racing blind.
"The pushing car can't see unless the spotter is doing a real good job of describing what's up in front," Johnson said.
Maybe we need to be handicapping the spotters instead of the drivers. Or maybe we shouldn't be handicapping at all.
"NASCAR is the science of chaos," Brenkus said. "It's so hard to manage."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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2011 Daytona 500
The 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is on the horizon, with a new racing surface greeting competitors heading into a new season of hope. It all begins Feb. 20 at Daytona International Speedway.