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Weekend Preview: Key storylines heading into Daytona races

February 24, 2012, NASCAR Wire Service,

Weekend Preview: Stewart goes for another NNS win; Hornaday hungry

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For all the talk about tandem racing leading up to Daytona's Speedweeks, Roush Fenway Racing may have the ultimate three-car push in store for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle will occupy the first two spots when the green flag falls on the 54th running of the Great American Race. Matt Kenseth earned the fourth starting position by winning the second Gatorade Duel qualifying race Thursday. Tony Stewart won the other qualifier, making him the only non-Roush driver in the first two rows.

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With close proximity among Ford stablemates at the start of the race, teamwork would seem to be in order. After bypassing Biffle for his Duel win, Kenseth said that's not necessarily so.

"Certainly, I think you race all day. You just race to try to have yourself in the best position," Kenseth said. "Like always, you're going to try the best you can to take care of your teammates as good as you can.

"Obviously, if it's multiple choice at the end, you're going to get the same answer for yourself. Obviously, you're going to go with a teammate instead of going somewhere else when it comes down to the end of the race."

Daytona International Speedway has produced an odd lot of results for longtime team owner Jack Roush. His cars have won five times in points-paying races, but just once in the Daytona 500 when Kenseth scored a rain-shortened victory in 2009. Roush also has four runner-up finishes in the 500, the most recent coming last year when Edwards ran second to Trevor Bayne.

Kenseth's win marked the first qualifying race triumph for Roush in 25 years of trying, leading the car owner to feign embarrassment over his lack of success in the Thursday preliminary.

If any of Roush's drivers plan to make it to Victory Lane in Sunday's main event, they'll have to be mindful of keeping their engines cool with their choice of drafting tactics. In Thursday's Duel, drivers reported water temperatures inching toward the perilous 300-degree mark -- the product of NASCAR's rules limiting engine cooling in an effort to curb two-car tandem racing.

While the reviews of the rules were mixed among drivers, Roush seemed pleased that his motors were able to withstand the heat.

"Whatever they do is fine," Roush said. "It's the same for everybody. I hope it's not a lot different than what we had [Thursday]. [Thursday] was a good dry run."

Stewart shoots for five in a row in Nationwide race

Tony Stewart's forays into the Nationwide Series have been sporadic in recent years, but the common theme has been winning the season-opening race at Daytona.

Stewart will take aim for his fifth consecutive victory -- and the sixth in the past seven years -- in Saturday's Drive4COPD 300, which kicks off the 31st season of Nationwide competition. When he takes the green flag, he'll be doing so for his fourth car owner in five years.

Stewart, who has won the season opener for Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick and Kevin Harvick, will take the reins for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 33 Chevrolet. It's the same team he beat by a bumper in 2011 with Clint Bowyer at the wheel in a 1-2 finish for Kevin Harvick Inc.; Childress since absorbed the assets of Harvick's team in the offseason.

"I've had three really good car owners to drive for," Stewart said. "It's neat to be able to say that I got to drive for Richard and I'm looking forward to the race. It's one that we've had a lot of good luck in."

While Stewart's wins have spoken to his Daytona dominance, none of the victories in his streak have been runaways. The total margin of victory in his four-race run is .643 of a second, including an ultra-slim seven-thousandths of a second in last year's photo finish (watch).

Stewart is among 19 drivers entered in both Saturday's 300-miler and Sunday's Daytona 500. Also on that list is defending Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who will make just his second Sprint Cup start Sunday.

Stenhouse finished eighth in the season opener last year, but has yet to win on a track larger than a mile. While a subpar finish Saturday won't necessarily derail his title defense, he'd rather not have a deficit to make up after Daytona.

"The first race of the season, we came into it last year saying that if we can get a top-10, we'll take it and move on," Stenhouse said. "We've got Phoenix, Vegas, Bristol and Fontana coming up where we ran really, really strong last year. We feel like we can really get our season going these first five races."

Hornaday hungry for Truck triumph at Daytona

For all the accomplishments in Ron Hornaday's decorated, 300-start Truck Series career, one gold star on his resume has eluded him -- a win at Daytona.

Hornaday will try to fill that void in Friday night's season-opening NextEra Energy 250 after an offseason of change. The 53-year-old veteran has moved to Joe Denette Motorsports after seven successful years with Kevin Harvick Inc., which closed its doors in the offseason. While the development left him with some anxious moments concerning his job security, he remains focused for his 15th season in Truck competition.

"I don't think we will miss a beat," Hornaday said. "I've been very fortunate to drive for some great people and win races. ... We've got to go out and win at least five or six more just so I can keep my job for next year."

The 2012 workload begins with a race that Hornaday wants most but has struggled at in the past. In eight Truck efforts at the 2.5-mile track, the four-time series champ has just one top-five finish.

"I don't care if it's on a bicycle or whatever, but I want to win Daytona," Hornaday said. "It's just one of those races everybody wants to win. I don't care what you win it on."

Neither the race nor the series have a defending champion. Michael Waltrip, last year's race winner, is not entered in Friday's 250-miler; Austin Dillon, who won the Truck crown last season, has moved to the Nationwide Series for 2012.

In his place is another Dillon ready to make his mark in NASCAR. Younger brother Ty Dillon, the 19-year-old who marched to the ARCA championship last season, embarks on his rookie season in the Richard Childress Racing No. 3.

"I'm super anxious," Dillon said. "I've been over at the dirt track all week running my dirt car. I've been down here racing, but I'm ready to get on the big-time track."