AP Photo/Reinhold Matay
Start Your Engines
There's no arguing the biggest race of the NASCAR season is Sunday. The Daytona 500 is always explained to non-gearheads as the sport's Super Bowl.
The other Super Bowl, played earlier this month in the Sunshine State, identifies a season's champion. Like pro football, Sprint Cup's Big Game hands out a cool trophy, nice checks and an introduction athletes will hear on the rubber-chicken circuit for the rest of their lives. But in racing, you can win the Super Bowl and be a virtual afterthought in the same season.
For everything this Sunday is, it is still only the first race out of 36.
Ryan Newman enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime a year ago when the top lane on the high-banked tri-oval opened and his Penske Dodge, with a push from teammate Kurt Busch, sailed to a win. Yet he'll defend the title with a new team, Stewart-Haas Racing, having come to the conclusion during the dog days of the NASCAR season that Penske wasn't going to take him to the top of the sport. Newman didn't finish higher than fourth in a race the rest of the year.
The Daytona 500 champ of two years ago, Kevin Harvick, is still looking for his next Cup win, though he did get a boost Saturday in winning the Budweiser Shootout for Richard Childress Racing.
At least Jimmie Johnson in 2006 rode the wave of momentum from a Daytona 500 title to a Cup title, showing that season-long champions can be previewed in the season opener.
But at the end of the day -- or night, as it is with the 500 -- it's just another episode of restrictor-plate mayhem. The stakes are high because it's for a spot in history, but also reasonable because getting caught in the Big One doesn't mean a season is lost.
"You know there's no more fun place to go than Daytona for the Daytona 500, especially on a clean slate where everyone's tied for the lead in points. There's not a lot of pressure," said Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards, last year's championship runner-up. "You've got time still to settle down and make up for the mistakes you make in Daytona. To me, the way the Chase is structured, this is really a fun, low-stress event as far as points are concerned."
OK, so the words "low-stress" don't immediately come to mind to the guys in the middle lane of the three-wide freight-train packs. It's still a 200-mph chess match -- "with the pieces not necessarily flat on the bottom," Tony Stewart said. It's where you make and lose friends every lap and hope you don't send 20 of them home -- plus yourself -- with one untimely flick of the wheel.
"As a driver, you just have to prepare mentally because you spend the entire race on your toes anticipating what any one of the other 42 drivers is going to do," said RFR veteran Greg Biffle, the 2003 winner of Daytona's July race.
Rest assured, there will be plenty of cautions and almost certainly mayhem at the end -- three consecutive 500s from 2005 to 2007 had green-white-checker finishes, and Newman's win was a classic. Some driver(s) will kick themselves for perhaps picking the wrong lane or drafting partners in the final run, losing a chance at immortality.
But after this Super Bowl, everyone will pack up and go to the next race. The rest of the season beckons.
Carl Edwards: Why does it almost require reminding that Jimmie Johnson's the three-time defending Cup champion? Because Edwards, with the momentum of last year's nine-win season -- including three wins in the final four Chase races -- has gotten more press as the pick for this year's title. Hard to argue, considering he also had more top-5s and top-10s last year.
"I try to think of this season coming up as an extension of last season because we finished so strong," Edwards said.
But if you're looking for a hole in his game, see last year's restrictor-plate races. He finished outside the top 15 just eight times all year, and three of those were the Daytona 500 and the two Talladegas. The last one, the Dega Chase race where he started a big crash late, went a long way toward handing Johnson his title.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You Gotta See This
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing: As Martin Truex Jr. said after winning the Daytona 500 pole, it's important not to get carried away by one hot lap. But hey, it's the Daytona 500 pole. If NASCAR didn't want everyone to get carried away, qualifying wouldn't be a week before the race.
Bottom line, it was a pretty nice day for a new team borne out of two struggling organizations. Truex and Montoya failed to make the Chase last year, with Montoya especially unimpressive in a 25th-place sophomore Cup season, but both had top-10 cars on qualifying day along with young teammate Aric Almirola.
Still a long, long way to go to crack the Hendrick/Roush/Childress/Gibbs club, but at least there was something to build on from the season's first big weekend.
Off The Pace
Sam Hornish Jr.: Among the shakier moves in the three-card Monte that is the annual offseason top-35 owner points swap was Penske Racing's taking on Bill Davis as a minority owner to secure his No. 22 owner points from last year for Hornish's No. 77 Dodge. Perhaps the new Penske Championship Racing name refers to Davis' Truck Series championship, because there wasn't anything at Penske resembling a championship after Ryan Newman's Daytona 500 win.
Hornish's high point of last season was a two-week stretch of 13th- and 18th-place runs in May; through the final two-thirds of the season he didn't record any top-20 finishes and failed to qualify for two races, including the Homestead-Miami finale.
He's secure for the first five starts of this season, but if Hornish has to live around the top-35 bubble again later in the year, it might be time to seriously reconsider that move from IndyCar.
Inside The Numbers
27th -- Finish for last year's pole-sitter, Jimmie Johnson.
11 -- Record for Daytona 500 cautions (1968, 2005, 2006).
8 -- Cautions in Saturday's Bud Shootout.
0 -- Restrictor-plate wins for Chevrolet last season.
19,911 -- Career laps led by Jeff Gordon.