Who will win today’s Daytona 500? NBC Sports analysts make their picks

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The wait is nearly over. The NASCAR Sprint Cup season opens today with the Daytona 500. Who will win? Here’s a look at what some NBC Sports analysts say.

Jeff Burton Dale Earnhardt Jr. … I believe Jr. wins the 500. His car is crazy fast and he knows how to manage a plate race as well if not better than anyone.

Steve Letarte — I won’t pick a winner for the 500 but my three favorites are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. I think this is going to be a classic duel between all three manufactures.

Dale Jarrett — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … Best car with best restrictor-plate driver = Victory!!

Kyle Petty — Jimmie Johnson … He’s the team leader now. I liked what I saw in the Duels. He picked up spots on pit road with a perfect stop. I think this is his year.

Parker Kligerman Dale Earnhardt Jr. … He is a closer.

Mike Massaro — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … Over the course of his career, he’s displayed an unparalleled understanding of the draft and how to use it to his advantage. That, coupled with having a strong car, which he certainly does this year, will make him incredibly difficult to beat.

Kelli Stavast — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … In four plate races last year, he had two wins and four top 3’s. It’s only been two years since his last Daytona 500 win. He looked really fast in Thursday night’s duel race and even last year’s 500 winner Joey Logano admitted that he wasn’t sure how he was going to beat Junior on Sunday. Hard to pick against him.

Krista Voda — Denny Hamlin. … Denny has become one of those drivers who is always in the mix at Superspeedway races. While his performance at the Unlimited further cemented that notion, it was actually Dale Jr.’s words about Denny, and the similarities Dale sees in the moves they both make at Daytona, that made him my pick.

Nate Ryan — Kyle Busch … Joe Gibbs Racing’s long drought in the Great American Race finally ends as the defending series champion picks up where he left off with an overdue Daytona 500 win.

Rutledge Wood — Ryan Blaney. I think fate will shine down again on the Wood Brothers team with another historic win that I hope will create an exemption with the RTA & give a charter to whoever wins the biggest race of the year:)

Dustin Long — Denny Hamlin. … I like what I’ve seen from his car this week and his driving style on plate tracks. It also doesn’t hurt to have a JGR car.

Jerry Bonkowski — Kurt Busch. … He is probably in the best place he’s been in personally and professionally in a long time. He kicks off a potential championship season with a win in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Daniel McFadin — Denny Hamlin. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday night it’s getting harder for him to hold the field off in plate races and Hamlin and JGR can only be denied so many times before they get it right.

Tony Stewart open to idea of relief duty beyond this season in Sprint Cup

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INDIANAPOLIS – This weekend is supposed to be Tony Stewart’s final race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a Sprint Cup car.

Or will it be?

The sport thought it witnessed Jeff Gordon’s final run at Indianapolis last year only for him to return this weekend in relief of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out because of concussion-like symptoms.

So, could Stewart come back if needed in a relief role after what is supposed to be his final year in Sprint Cup?

“It is something that I thought about since the talk came about Jeff getting back in the car,’’ Stewart said. “We (Stewart-Haas Racing) don’t have a feeder system. We don’t have an Xfinity team. We don’t have anybody that’s in our system to bring up if that is the case.

“We will talk about it at some point, but I am definitely open to that scenario if it were to happen down the road and we needed somebody, I would be open to doing what Jeff is doing this weekend.”

Stewart, a three-time series champion, will give up his No. 14 ride next year to Clint Bowyer, but Stewart plans to race in dirt track events.

Erik Jones: ‘We just didn’t have the speed the 18 had’

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Erik Jones finished 22nd in the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the result doesn’t match the performance. Jones breaks down the wreck that ultimately took him out the race. 

Kyle Larson thought he would get by Kyle Busch on fresher tires

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Kyle Larson had a shot at Indianapolis winner Kyle Busch late in the Lilly Diabetes 250, but finished fourth, which he says was “not fun.” Larson dissects the problems of the last restart and talks about the amount of speed Kyle Busch was able to get out of his old tires.

“We came in for four (tires) there and we were going to line up third on that first restart and I thought we were going to be at a really good advantage with Kyle (Busch) on older stuff, and he was just really good,” Larson told NBCSN. “I was surprised at how much grip he had on his old stuff.”

Paul Menard says RCR needs more speed to compete with JGR

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Paul Menard finished third the Xfinity Series Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and is happy with the result, but he says they need to find more speed if they are going to compete with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars.