Alex Ferguson picks his winner for Sunday's Daytona 500
Last Updated: 24/02/14 12:07pm
Jimmie Johnson: won six consecutive titles
The drama of one of motor racing's biggest races will be played out on Sunday night when NASCAR drivers take to the Daytona 500.
Sky Sports' US sports expert Alex Ferguson looks at the race favourites and changes to the 2014 season and, of course, tips a winner of both the race and the season.
"Gentlemen, start your engines!"
The traditional cry before a NASCAR race seems to have special significance before the Daytona 500. Maybe it's because in the 2001 race, the NASCAR Nation had its hearts broken because of the death of Dale Earnhardt, the most 'Marmite' of all the competitors. Ask any race fan and drink a cold one, look wistfully and then let him tell you categorically if he believes Dale Sr is currently on the racetrack in heaven or hell. But not one of them will ever tell you that he's not missed or didn't add spice.
His son, Dale Jr, hasn't won a race in 54 and only one in around 200. He's come close a few times, but it's not exactly the tapestry of success that NASCAR's most popular driver was hoping for. And yes, although the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished fifth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2013, it would be a tremendous story if Dale Jr did win again. He's come second three times since 2010. And here's the funny thing: Under NASCAR's new play-off system, he would have been Series Champion if it wasn't under the old system. And he hasn't won a race!
So what is the new system? Well, it's pretty complicated...
This time around, you get a spot in The Chase if you win a race. That stops someone compiling eight wins but a bunch of DNFs and missing a chance to race for the title.
The Chase field has been expanded so now 16 drivers can win it all rather than simply 12. That's good for the sport because No.13 won't be unlucky anymore.
And now it gets complicated: After three Chase races - or the 'Challenger Round' - the amount of drivers who can contend a championship drops from 16 to 12. After the next three races - or the 'Contender Round' - the amount of drivers who can win it all drops to eight, and after the 'Eliminator Round' the number drops to four. And at the final race of the season at Homestead, Florida - the 36th of the season - those four battle it out for the title. The driver finishing highest in the Championship race wins the title. Imagine what could happen at the end of the final race, folks.
But as usual, there are caveats. NASCAR says that if you win a race during The Chase and you're a Chase contender, you can contend for a Championship. You can still get bonus points for leading laps and having the most laps led in a race. You get bonus points for winning more races - as you should do.
Clear as mud? The picture will appear clearer as the season goes on. NASCAR's been quick to point out that the reformatted Chase is there to emphasise winning rather than race after race of boring finishes. As the season wears on, the last 10 laps of NASCAR races could become essential viewing which is exactly what the powers-that-be want in their dreams - motorsport's play-off races contending with the NFL and College Football for people's viewing consciousness.
Of course, a lot of Jimmie Johnson fans think that this is NASCAR's attempt to stop the No.48 driver winning his seventh straight title. Between 2006 and 2013, Johnson's won the title, oh, every year but 2011 and 2012. This is the sort of dominance that Sebastian Vettel would be proud of over an eight-year stretch (the Formula One man, by the way, is on a 'Drive For Five' this year). Johnson's average finish over the course of a 36 race season is just over 10th. That's sensational.
The No.48 car's a 5/2 favourite with SkyBet to take home another title. But what other drivers could take home the NASCAR crown?
Matt Kenseth (15/2) - Battled Johnson all the way in 2013
Kyle Busch (15/2) - On his day the most dangerous talent in NASCAR.
Denny Hamlin (10/1) - A talented youngster who had an injury-plagued 2013.
Brad Keselowski (12/1) - Young, talented, and won it all in 2012.
Earnhardt Jr (16/1) - Very consistent last year. If he gets some luck, he could well win it all.
Tony Stewart (16/1) - Back from an injury, and thirsty.
Kevin Harvick (20/1) - Four wins, Nine Top 5s in 2013.
But back to the Daytona 500. Some of the drivers will still be steaming after late-lap crashes at the Budweiser Duels that set the Daytona 500 starting line-up. Johnson was the cause of one of them and will start in 32nd place on Sunday. Not that that will matter. Restrictor plate races like Daytona and Talladega are both cars where starting on pole doesn't give any great advantage - it's all about having good drafting mates. To win the Daytona 500, we like Kyle Busch at 14/1 to take it all home. He had four wins and 16 Top-5 and 22 Top-10 finishes last year, and he always seems to be there or thereabouts at the '500.
But like the NASCAR season that will unroll on Sunday, the Daytona 500 is going to be incredibly unpredictable. Or, as the Southerners call it, a 'crapshoot'.
For all NASCAR betting, SkyBet's got complete odds on Daytona 500 and outright season winners: http://www.skybet.com/nascar