NASCAR remains the only major sport that starts its season with the biggest event on the schedule and this year will be no different with the running of the 54th Daytona 500 this Sunday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway. The ‘Great American Race’ remains NASCAR’s premier prize for every Sprint Cup driver and 43 of them will be firing-up their engines for a chance to add this year’s title to their trophy case.

The Favorites

Kevin HarvickSportsbooks have opened Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch as the co-favorites to win on Sunday at NASCAR odds of +1000. Busch is coming off a dramatic victory in last Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, but the value in these odds lie with Harvick. He won this race in 2007 and won the second race of the season at Daytona in 2010. His average finishing position at this track is 15.4 and he has five career top-five finishes here.

The No.29 car was consistently one of the best in the Sprint Cup series last season with 19 top-10 finishes in 36 races, four victories, and a third-place finish in the point standings; just 58 points out of first.

The Contenders

It gets a bit crowded when looking at the group of second-favorites with this year’s pole-sitter Carl Edwards, last season’s Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, long-time veteran Jeff Gordon, and NASCAR fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. all listed at NASCAR betting odds of+1200.

All four drivers are more than capable of winning this race and, with the exception of Edwards, have already taken the checkered flag in this race, but the value in these sports picks lies in Dale Jr. While many racing experts have classified him as over-rated and racing in his father’s shadow, Daytona is a track where he has already lived-up to his potential.

Junior won the 500 in 2004 and came close in 2010 with a second-place finish. Overall, he has eight top-five finishes at Daytona and an average finishing position of 15.0. The No.88 car is coming off its best season in recent memory with four top five’s and a seventh-place finish in the point standings. The one red flag is a 129-race winless streak that dates back to the 2008 Sprint Cup season, but if there ever was a perfect time and place to end the drought it will be this Sunday at Daytona.

The Longshots

Daytona 500It is really hard to classify a five-time Sprint Cup champion as a longshot, but at +1400, Jimmie Johnson offers tremendous value to win this year’s 500. He is coming off one of his worst seasons on the series and still finished sixth in the point standings. Johnson got off to a rough start in 2011 with a 27th-place finish in this race, but he won the 500 in 2006 and finished second in 2009. He remains a threat to win any time he gets behind the wheel and will be racing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder in an effort to turn things around in 2012.

Matt Kenseth could be classified as a legitimate longshot at +2500 and probably offers the most value of any driver on this list for your NASCAR picks. He won the Daytona 500 in 2009 and has 10 other top-10 finishes at this track. The No.17 car has also been one of the most consistent competitors over the past few seasons with a fifth-place finish in the standings in 2010 and a fourth-place finish in 2011. Kenseth is a perfect driver for Daytona as he tends to race ‘under the radar’ but always seems to find a way to stay on the lead lap down the stretch. If last Saturday night’s wreck-filled Bud Shootout is any indication of what Sunday will be like, he may find himself in perfect position to add a second Daytona 500 victory to his belt.