In This Corner: Daytona 500 Preview (w/ Celebrity Guest Picker Howard Hitchcock)

With the official start of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season here, it’s that time of year when everyone starts giving their predictions for what’s going to happen during the season and which driver will win each race.

We are no different.

It’s time for us to bring back our “expert” prognosticators from last year’s “In This Corner,” Alex Pohlman and John Farrell. (They’re only experts in their own heads.)

When last we saw them, Alex was hoisting her championship belt (yes, she was actually presented a real leather championship belt) after her weekly picking skills were far superior to John’s. In the end, she won 14-10 (they started with the May Dover race). It was a long off-season for John, who had to endure Alex’s countless barbs and taunts.

Beginning with Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, Alex and John will each select which driver they think will win. However, we’ve beefed up the competition, making it harder for them, but more interesting for our readers.

Joining Alex and John each week will be a different guest celebrity prognosticator. In addition, instead of selecting one possible winner, each oracle will pick three drivers they think have the best shot at ending up in Victory Lane. Whoever selects the three drivers with the lowest accumulated finishing position will receive the point for that weekend.

For example, if Alex picks the race winner and the 20th- and 30th-place finishers, but John picks the 10th-, 15th- and 20th-place winners, John would get that week’s point (of course, depending on who the celebrity guest picker selects) because his drivers’ accumulated finishing position total (45) was lower than Alex’s (51).

The celebrity guest forecaster can choose whichever three drivers he or she wants regardless of who Alex or John select. However, Alex and John can only have one pick in common.

We will keep a running tally between Alex, John and the celebrity guests every week. At the end of the season, the prognosticator with the most points will be crowned as the victor.

Obviously, the first race up is the season-opening Daytona 500. It’s the first full-length race this season and we’ll get to see how all the changes made during the off-season affect the race and its outcome.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on how drivers with new teams fare and how they communicate with their crew chiefs and teams (e.g., Chase Elliott in the No. 24). We’re also interested in seeing how teams that switched OEMs perform in their new equipment (e.g., Furniture Row Racing going from Chevrolet to Toyota).

We also want to know if drivers who had off years in 2015 are able to bounce back or will drivers and teams that were strong last season stay at the top of the sport.

To say there there are a lot of unknown variables going into the first race of the season is a huge understatement. That’s why choosing the Daytona 500 winner can be a little difficult.

But when you add in the fact that it’s a restrictor-plate race where anything can happen (and usually does), the waters get even muddier.

With all that said, it’s still fun to try to channel our psychic abilities and predict the winner of the Daytona 500. So without further ado, here is our first guest celebrity prognosticator and their picks.

The first guest picker of the year is someone who is well-known throughout the die-cast world, and here at Lionel. Some people may even remember him from his days as “Dr. Die-Cast.” Nowadays, Howard Hitchcock is the president of Lionel, L.C.C., which includes Lionel Racing and Lionel Trains.

HOWARD’S PICKS

Howard_Logo1. Dale Jr.: Dale has been so strong lately, and hasn’t finished the last two seasons the way he has run them. I think he has a championship to prove. Not only has he been running well at Daytona, over the last three years, he’s come in 2nd, 1st and 3rd from 2013-2015, respectively. Plus, he won in July 2015. Not only is he the best-selling driver, he is also the Vegas favorite. Can’t argue with Vegas.

2. Jimmie Johnson: Jimmie is always good … always. He’s talked a lot about having good speed in the car over the off-season; therefore, I think he’s a contender. Not to mention, having him work with my other choice, Dale, they should be able to stay up front and out of the way of danger.

3. Kyle Busch: This was a hard choice; I was torn as I feel really strong about Harvick, but being limited to three, I have to go with the reigning champion and his return to the Daytona 500. After missing last year due to the NASCAR XFINITY crash, my guess is he has something to prove and therefore the rest of the field … beware.

ALEX’S PICKS

InThisCorner-Alex1. Ryan Blaney: Wood Brothers have to fight their way in each weekend without a Charter, so I think Ryan will do well in the Daytona 500.

2. Chase Elliott: After taking the pole for NASCAR’s biggest race, this legacy has something to prove by taking over the famous No. 24 car.

3. Dale Jr.: You can’t go to Daytona or Talladega without having Dale Jr. in your fantasy league and I think this year Dale has a new fire and will be there at the end on Sunday.

JOHN’S PICKS

InThisCorner-John1. Dale Jr.: Junior is a restrictor-plate maverick with more victories (four) at Daytona than anyone else in Sunday’s field, and his good starting position should be all the help he needs to be in contention for the win.

2. Denny Hamlin: This selection may surprise some because he’s never won at Daytona, but coming into this race he has four consecutive top-six finishes at the 2.5-mile track.

3. Kevin Harvick: The 2014 champion has seven top-seven finishes in the Daytona 500, including a win in the 2007 edition and two runner-up showings.

GUESTS – 0; ALEX – 0; JOHN – 0

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