Daytona 500 and NASCAR preview

The four major professional sports -- baseball, basketball, football and hockey -- have the most fan support when it comes to fantasy sports. However, less-publicized sports are becoming more popular in the fantasy world.

Earlier this year, I told you about the chance to win more than $1 million in fantasy fishing. Now I'll kick off the 2008 Sprint Cup Series with a preview of the top drivers to watch in Sunday's Daytona 500, as well as the drivers who will accumulate the most points for your fantasy racing team in 2008.


Fantasy racing offers fans an opportunity to follow their favorite drivers and allows them to become racing team owners. Several Web sites offer fantasy racing, including NASCAR.com, Yahoo!, Fox Sports and ESPN. These sites allow you to play several different types of fantasy racing games, so I think it's best to rank the drivers instead of trying to adjust my rankings to fit all of the scoring systems that are unique to each site.

Jimmie Johnson will be starting from the pole position in the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Michael Waltrip will start second in the 50th running of the event. After winning the two qualifying races held at the track on Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin will start third and fourth, respectively.


The five drivers listed below won't necessarily finish in that order at Daytona, but you should keep an eye on how they race on Sunday. I think they are all worth watching for different reasons and all five have at least a small chance of winning Sunday's race.

Top 5 drivers to watch – Daytona 500

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – After finishing 16th in the Sprint Cup last season, Earnhardt left DEI Enterprises to join Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season. So far, the move has been magical for the 33-year-old driver. He won the Bud Shootout exhibition last weekend and took the checkered flag in the first qualifying race on Thursday. It's going to be tough to beat Earnhardt. He's on a mission and he's my pick to win Sunday's race.

2. Jimmie Johnson – Johnson looks to set the tone in the first race of the season. He started strong by qualifying for the pole position and always runs a tough race. Johnson has won the last two Cup championships and he's finished among the top five drivers in every season since 2002. I'd pick him to win, but Earnhardt has simply looked too impressive this week. Still, Johnson is favored to win his third consecutive series championship and shouldn't be counted out of Sunday's race.

3. Tony Stewart – Stewart is always worth watching in a NASCAR race. In my opinion, he is the most entertaining driver in the sport. People either love him or they hate him. He's already made his presence known at Daytona by feuding with Kurt Busch during a practice session last week. It'll be interesting to see if the two drivers put the dispute behind them or continue to battle on the track.

4. Kevin Harvick – Last year's Daytona 500 champion will start from the 16th position on Sunday. He started 34th last season, which was the lowest starting position of a Daytona 500 winner. Will he be able to repeat as champion? If he finishes strong in the race again this year, then he could be a contender for the overall championship. Harvick only led for four laps of last year's race and edged out Mark Martin by .020 seconds.

5. Kasey Kahne – After finishing 41st in the Daytona 500 as a rookie in 2004, Kahne has steadily improved each year at Daytona (22nd in 2005, 11th in 2006, seventh in 2007). He's not among the favorites to win Sunday's race, but keep an eye on how he finishes because I like him as a sleeper in 2008. He'll start from the 10th position on Sunday, so there's a good chance he'll finish among the leaders.

While the winner of the Daytona 500 will have a good start to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it's not necessary to finish well in Sunday's race to have a shot at the overall title. Keep in mind that Johnson won his second straight series championship last season after finishing 39th at Daytona. Below is a list of the top 10 drivers in order of how I think they'll finish this season in the overall standings.

Top 10 drivers – 2008 season predictions

1. Jimmie Johnson

2. Tony Stewart

3. Matt Kenseth


4. Jeff Gordon

5. Kevin Harvick

6. Denny Hamlin

7. Carl Edwards

8. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

9. Kyle Busch

10. Kurt Busch

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