|02/21/12 02:40PM||Biffle, Burton, Daytona 500, Hamlin, Labonte, Logano, NASCAR, Stewart|
Stewart prepared, but won't call himself favorite
With the Daytona 500 just days away, here's how the eight drivers in the Coca-Cola racing family are gearing up for the 2012 NASCAR season:
After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year for the first time since 2007, Biffle got a good jump to his 11th season in the top series. He qualified second for the Daytona 500 on Sunday -- his best start in the big race since winning the pole in 2004. His best finish was third two years ago. Biffle will work again with crew chief Matt Puccia, who came aboard midseason last year and led the team to five top-10 finishes and three poles.
Biffle: "I'm going to go out here and try to win this thing on Sunday and I'm not thinking about the championship, I'm thinking about winning the Daytona 500."
The veteran Virginia driver will look to return to the Chase after missing out for just the second time in six seasons in 2011. Burton has new crew chief -- Drew Blickensderfer from Roush Fenway Racing. He has three finishes of 13th or better in the Daytona 500 in the past five seasons. And he qualifies well, too. Burton won his Gatrorade Duel last year to start fourth -- the ninth time in 15 years where he qualified 14th or better for the big race.
Burton: "I had two years where I thought we had great opportunities to win races and do great things and didn't do them."
Hamlin has become an annual threat for the Sprint Cup title. The Virginia native has made the Chase in each of his six full seasons and has four consecutive top-9 points finishes. Now Hamlin has a new title-winning crew chief, Darian Grubb, who sat atop the pit box for Tony Stewart's championship season last year. Hamlin appears ready for his first Daytona 500 finish better than 17th. He recovered from an early wreck in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout to finish fifth.
Hamlin: "I feel like we've got some great things coming and [Grubb's] really the backbone behind this race team. What I love about it is that all of our guys are buying into him."
The 2000 series champion enters the season with some excitement after his best points finish in three years. He has a new crew chief, Todd Berrier from Richard Childress Racing, and a new home for his race team. The Texas native will want to build off last year's fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 -- his first top-10 in the race since 2004. Labonte expects the return of pack racing Sunday to be an equalizer.
Labonte: "We want to win, but we also know that for us -- we've got a long way to go. We started off a few months ago with nothing and worked real hard to get here."
A new crew chief, Jason Ratcliff from the Nationwide Series, has brought a new attitude to the team that showed some flashes last season, including a stretch of top-fives during the summer. Logano finished 23rd last year at Daytona. The Connecticut native's best finish in three 500s is 20th. He led early in the Bud Shootout before he was spun out in the latter half of the race. The youngest driver ever to win a Nationwide and Sprint Cup race wants a fast start to a season with a fresh start.
Logano: "With this crew chief change now, it allows it to be your team -- it allows you to be a leader. That's a really big deal for me."
The 2010 Daytona 500 winner is looking to bounce back from a challenging 2011 season. McMurray has a new team manager, car chief and technical director. The Missouri native spent a good portion of the Bud Shootout at the front before getting caught in a late wreck to finish 16th. McMurray likes his chances Sunday, but as a past winner, he knows the joy of taking the checkered flag of the first race is short-lived during the season:
McMurray: "You have about 30 minutes to savor it and then they send you on a crazy media tour and by the time the media tour is over you are worn out and it is time to go to the next race."
Newman made the Chase last year after his first full season without a DNF and with his most top-10 finishes in eight years. He is eager for his first top-half finish in the Daytona 500 since winning the 2008 race. The Purdue engineering graduate finished seventh in the Shootout and hopes to share more of the success from his teammate, Stewart.
Newman on his NASCAR.COM blog: "That's why this is such a humbling sport. I look forward to the opportunities to go back out and prove we're capable of doing what he did. ... We need to start the season strong. You know, Daytona has been feast or famine for me."
Stewart earned his third Cup Series championship last year by winning half of the 10 races in the Chase. He could get off to a fast start in his title defense: Stewart has six top-10 finishes in his past nine Daytona 500s and finished second in the Bud Shootout in a car he wrecked the day before. The Indiana native brought in a new crew chief, Steve Addington, and added his former crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, as competition director. But Stewart won't call himself a favorite for this season.
Stewart: "I think our season last year was proof that you're throwing darts on a dart board right now if you're trying to predict who's going to win the championship this early."