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Daytona The Chevy Chase

The qualification procedures may be arcane, Speed Weeks may take too long, and the kvetching about restrictor plates may make the Smokeless Set's drivers sound like Oprah Winfrey bitching out James Frey ("How could you lie to me? I'm Oprah"). But once Sunday afternoon comes, NASCAR nation is set to be completely psyched once again, and so am I. They call Nextel Cup's the shortest offseason in sports, but the truth is that Homestead (November's final race) seems like a long time ago. I mean, gosh, way back then, the Pittsburgh Steelers were just a glimmer in Bill Cowher's eye, Louisville looked like it was going to field a darned good college basketball team, and Dick Cheney had shot as many people in the face as you had. Also, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Michael Waltrip, Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, Scott Riggs, Ken Schrader and Terry Labonte drove for different teams.

But the future is now, and the '06 season is set to begin with a bang. Finally. The leading storylines for the big race will include whether or not a Ford or Dodge can break Chevrolet's hold on the 500; Chevy has won three 500s in a row, 10 of the last 13 and 13 of the last 17.

And the GM cars are just as dominant overall on restrictor-plate tracks: before Dale Jarrett's caution-aided win at Talladega last fall, Chevy had won 13 straight races on that track, and has won more than 70% of the events held a the Daytona superspeedway since 1992. Will Dodge break the skein? I don't think so. I'm not consoled by what I hear between the lines of what Dodge drivers like Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne have said about the 2006 Charger, which is basically the same as the 2005 Charger, which simply didn't run well at the restricted superspeedways or the unrestricted intermediate speedways. Will Ford break through? That's a far trickier question.

There are some incredible drivers and teams that drive Fords, and though they've all changed from the Taurus to the Fusion, aero tests have indicated that they haven't lost much in translation. Watching Elliott Sadler lead his qualifying heat last Thursday, you'd have a hard time convincing too many drivers that the Fusion isn't sound as a drum. But what are we supposed to do with all this data? Over the past four seasons (what I refer to as the "modern era" of Nextel Cup racing), the three drivers with the best average finish at Daytona (Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) drive Chevy. The highest Ford is Jarrett in fourth, and the highest Dodge is Marlin in 13th (though of course he's moved to Chevy this year).

Tony Stewart drives Chevy. Kevin Harvick drives Chevy. And the leading team in Ford's stable, Roush Racing, has never won the Daytona 500 (Greg Biffle is the only Roush driver to post a win at Daytona, and that was the '03 Pepsi 500 he won on a fluky fuel strategy).

While I'm impressed by Yates, and you can't help but love the Roush cars, I have to admit that for the foreseeable future, at plate tracks I'm thinking Chevy. So which drivers do I think represent the best wagers on the first race of the 2006 season? Read on! Last Season: I finished +54.6 units in 2005, which is pretty darned good, and looks even better when you consider that I posted 30 winning weeks out of 37 events (I include the mid-May All-Star Challenge). I selected a correct outright winner in 17 events, and got a head-to-head wager correct in 28 of 36 events. Let's see if we can do even better in 2006.

Note that outright we will be quoting our odds direct from BoDog.com this season, which may result in release delays, but will accomodate a wider audience. Chris Harris covers Nascar for Brian Gabrielle Sports .

By: Christopher Harris

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