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Daytona recap: McMurray shocks us all

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Gerrit Ritt

Gerrit is a fantasy editor for>>

More than a dozen drivers held the lead, and that was before the first of two extended breaks to repair a track that had been beaten and battered over the course of two-plus weeks of events.

That was just the beginning, though, as it was an interesting afternoon at NASCAR’s premier event, to say the least. When it was all said and done, one man reigned supreme at the Great American Race, and it wasn’t who many average fans would predict.

Jamie McMurray saw his way through all the carnage and stoppages and restarts to take the checkered flag ahead of the biggest names in the sport in what was quite a start to the 2010 NASCAR season.

Top Five Finishers

1. Jamie McMurray

I’d seen experts at FOX and elsewhere predicting McMurray would do well this week – maybe even win – but I obviously didn’t buy into it. The new team was a positive start, and he obviously gained some confidence from that over the offseason. But it wasn’t until the second of two green-white restarts that he really showed the crowd what they were waiting for. McMurray took the lead on the first of the two laps, then held off an impressive charge from Earnhardt to win his first-ever Daytona 500; hopefully, the kickoff to a strong year for the new No. 1 car.

2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

He led early in the race, then fell way back to the rear of the field. He hung around and hung around until beginning the second restart fairly far back in 10th. However, that didn’t stop him from passing other drivers like they were standing still. The television announcers said it was “like his daddy used to do.” They may be right, as Junior did what he needed to do in his first race after an utterly terrible 2009 campaign. His late push found him in second place at the biggest event of the year, which is just what fans and fantasy players were hoping for, since we all know this sport is a better one when Earnhardt’s in contention every week.

3. Greg Biffle

Held the lead at the beginning of the restart, but wasn’t able to hold on when McMurray made his run. I wouldn’t worry for him, though, as he’s sure to be near the top of several races throughout the remainder of the season. He looked good all afternoon and deserved the top three as much as anyone. He’s gonna be a popular fantasy pick more often than not.

4. Clint Bowyer

Bowyer impressed me more than almost any other driver on Sunday. He was at the front of the pack most of the afternoon and had a really good chance to win this thing in his first race with his new team and new car. No reason why he shouldn’t win a couple times in the near future. He looked amazingly confident, which is a good sign of things to come.

5. David Reutimann

The announcers barely even knew he was there. It took Darrell Waltrip several minutes to even notice Reutimann’s name in the top five, then he seemed shocked when it was finally made clear to him the No. 00 car had done so well. I’m sure many of you were too, as he isn’t exactly a fan - or fantasy – favorite. However, this was his third top 20 in three Daytona 500s (18th, 12th), so it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. I have no idea what this finish will do for his season overall, but it has to be a tremendous confidence boost, no doubt about it.

Top Five Disappointments

1. Jimmie Johnson

When your three-time defending Series champion ends the day in 35th, having never even competed for the lead at any moment, that’s some serious cause for concern. Of course, we has 31st and 27th in the last two 500s and still seemed to do pretty well overall, so I guess we shouldn’t look too deep into it. I know I didn’t have him on my team this week, so I don’t feel bad, but I know thousands of you did. He’ll get his share of victories, there’s no doubt about that, but bide your time for now and let the season get a month or two old before putting too much of your stake in him. This isn’t his time of year – October and November is.

2. Kurt Busch

He dominated this race for most of the first 100 laps, leading 32 laps during that time. His car was terrific, and he looked terrific. But some mid-race issues caused him to fall back and finish the day in 23rd. Not catastrophic by any means, but it should’ve been a lot better. This was a race he’s done well at in the past, and his finish here should’ve been a lot better than 23rd. After the start he had, nothing worse than a top 10 would’ve been acceptable.

3. Jeff Gordon

He had his moments Sunday as well, but also fell back when it mattered most. Getting unlucky at times, the Rainbow Warrior slipped into the middle of the pack, then got into it with Robby Gordon on the final lap, ending his day in 26th. There will be better days, of course, but this should’ve been one of them. He was looking too good to have his day end in such a way.

4. Ryan Newman

After the success the Stewart/Haas team had in ’09, for Newman to place in 34th is a bummer to be sure. He actually won this race just two years ago as well, so you know he’s able to compete here. The fact that neither he nor Tony Stewart ever mounted a charge is disappointing, Let’s hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

5. Marcos Ambrose

I know there were some experts at FOX, in particular, who believed this would be the year Ambrose proved he belonged in the category with the big boys. Well, that didn’t happen this week. The No. 47 team finished 41st out of 43 teams, completing just 80 of the 200 laps. Not his best effort, that’s for sure. There’s still time for him to do some things this season, but it’ll have to wait.

Top Five Surprises

1. David Reutimann

He had a win and five top fives last season, but this may have been his best result of them all. Putting up a top five at Daytona is a big deal, no matter how it comes. It’s instant respect amongst your peers, and the confidence it gives can be as big as anything one does in their career. It’ll be interesting to see if he capitalizes on this the way he should.

2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Some thought he was done after what happened to him last season. He was an afterthought, even after moving to the most dominant team in the sport. How can one not win at Hendrick, right? Well, he couldn’t. However, this second-place finish Sunday could be exactly what it takes to get him going in the right director again.

3. Martin Truex, Jr.

He wasn’t Earnhardt-bad last season, but 2009 surely didn’t go well for him at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. any more than it did for Junior over at Hendrick Motorsports. He missed the Chase and rarely competed most weeks, but his sixth-place finish this weekend was just what the doctor ordered for the new No.56 car. Look for him to do some good things with his new team this season.

4. Paul Menard

Not a monster day, but coming in 13th marked his best-ever finish in six Daytona starts. He runs well on occasion, so it’s gonna be tough to tell how this will effect the rest of his season, but it’s certainly a solid start.

5. David Ragan

A lot was expected from Ragan last year after how well he did in 2008. It didn’t happen, though, as he missed the Chase altogether and was pretty much invisible most of the year. He needed a rebound effort this week, just as many other drivers did. Fortunately for the No. 6 team, that’s exactly what they got. Ragan drove well most of the day, even finding himself right in the thick of things at the very end. He eventually slipped back to 16th in the final results, but it’s how he performed throughout the majority of the day that showed me he’s ready to have a bounce back season.

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