Beyond Golf — 24 February 2012 by Kirby Arnold
Daytona winner? Survivor of final 10

Predicting the winner of the Daytona 500 is always an exercise in uncertainty because it’s the most unpredictable race of the NASCAR season.

Drivers race for three-plus hours in a 200-mph pack and one accidental – or intentional – rub of a fender can (and usually does) turn a first-place car into a pile of junk.

This year, I might as well predict when my roses will bloom (hint: I don’t even have roses).

Before I take a stab (check out our predictions) at who’ll win the Daytona 500, I’ll tell you who won’t: Danica Patrick.

She may be the most-hyped driver going into the race, but she’s also the most inexperienced at the Sprint Cup level, this being her rookie race. Danica will have her day, but not this day.

So who will win it?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.? He’s the people’s pick, but not mine.

Kyle Busch? There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the most talented driver in the field, but I’m also convinced he’s got the least control over his emotions. Lose control of your emotions in this sport, you lose control of your car. Over 500 miles, he’ll take himself out of contention at some point.

Trevor Bayne, last year’s surprise winner of the 500?  Not two years in a row.

This race will be determined by who’s not taken out by accident, who’s lucky enough to be racing with 10 laps remaining and who has the skill and, just as important, guts to push their way to the front at the checkered flag.

Don’t miss those last 10 laps. My guess is that Danica will.

But Jeff Gordon won’t. He’s my pick to win the 500.

NASCAR folks refer to the Daytona 500 as the Super Bowl of their sport, except of course that the Super Bowl doesn’t start the NFL season.

Daytona may be the showcase race in the eyes of fans, sponsors and, of course, the driver who wins the 500, but the real NASCAR season will start the following week at Phoenix in the second of 36 races.

Aside from the two races each season at Daytona and two at Talladega – tracks where pack racing makes the outcome almost impossible to predict – it takes the truly best driver/car/team combination to win at NASCAR’s other venues.

To win a season championship, it takes a hard-nosed, highly talented driver who’s a threat to win at any track – super speedway, short oval, road course – and knows what’s involved in winning a championship.

That’s why I’m picking Tony Stewart to win the Sprint Cup title at season’s end. He won it all last year for the third time and there’s no reason he can’t win it again.

Until then, the Daytona 500 should be a slam-bang start to the season. Don’t miss those last 10 laps.

 

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Kirby Arnold

Kirby was 10 years old when he played his first round of golf with his grandmother on the sand greens of the Versailles Country Club in Missouri, and his love of the game has never wavered. Only one thing stood between Kirby and a single-digit handicap: his job. Kirby worked 42 years as a sports writer and editor at newspapers in Missouri and Washington. He started while a high school sophomore at the Rolla Daily News in Missouri and covered a variety of events, including his own high school basketball games (he made sure his name was spelled right). He was a sports writer and editor for 10 years at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, covering Southwest Missouri State University football and basketball, Missouri University football and basketball, and numerous motorsports events including the Indianapolis 500 during the 1970s and 1980s. He moved to the Seattle area in 1984, becoming assistant sports editor at The Herald in Everett, Wa., then executive sports editor from 1987-1998, a time when The Herald's sports coverage was recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as being among the best in the nation for newspapers its size. Kirby returned to the press box in 1999, taking over The Herald's coverage of the Seattle Mariners. He covered the Mariners/baseball beat the next 13 seasons and in 2007 wrote his first book, Tales from the Seattle Mariners Dugout. While Kirby pursued a rewarding newspaper career, one of his lifelong goals remained unfulfilled: breaking 80 on a consistent basis. Kirby left The Herald at the end of 2011, moved to Phoenix and immediately began spending more time at the golf course. His only excuse now is a 12 on the stimpmeter.

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