Mash The Gas – Daytona Preview

Jimmie Johnson talks with crew chief Chad Knaus during practice for the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway. [Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images]
Jimmie Johnson talks with crew chief Chad Knaus during practice for the 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway.  [Credit: NASCAR Via Getty Images]


by John Wiedemann

There are lots of questions and curiosities heading into the first race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the Daytona 500.  With a new sponsor, new rules, new points payouts and new drivers in new places in the series, this opening race will have its normal restrictor plate drama amped up even more than usual.

Stage Based Racing – NASCAR has implemented stage lengths for each race in all three of its national series.  Each stage will pay points with the top ten finishers in the first two stages will be awarded points and the winner of those stages will receive a playoff point.  The winner of the race will receive five playoff points.  If the driver makes the Chase, those playoff points will come into play.  For Daytona, the stages are set to end on lap 60, lap 120 and lap 200.  How drivers will react at the end of stage one and two will probably be close to the same way they react at the end of a race. Expect beating, banging, spinning and more at the end of those stages.  Will someone risk ruining the rest of their race to get points at the end of stage one?  It is a pretty safe bet that they will.

New Faces, New Places – Clint Bowyer leads the pack as he gets back with a championship contending team as he takes over the #14 from the retired Tony Stewart.  The entire Stewart-Haas Racing team moves from Chevrolet to Ford.  Last year’s Xfinity Series Champion moves into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship contending ride as Dainel Suarez takes over the #19 from the suddenly and surprisingly retired Carl Edwards. Ty Dillon replaces Casey Mears in the #13.  Xfinity Series championship contender Erik Jones joins Martin Truex Jr. on the Furniture Row Racing team.  And, an old face returns to an old place as Dale Earnhardt Jr steps back into the #88 after missing much of the 2016 season with concussion issues.

Who To Watch

Dale Earnhardt Jr – Always one to watch at Daytona, Junior will have extra attention following his concussion struggles that forced him to step out of his Hendrick Motorsports #88 and miss the last half of the 2016 season.  Earnhardt was cleared by doctors to resume racing and is back.  While he didn’t race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, Junior qualified second for the Daytona 500 and led 53 of 60 laps in his Can-Am Duel qualifying race before eventually finishing fifth.  Always a threat to win, nothing has changed in that regard and Junior should be considered a contender for this Daytona 500 as well.  How he maneuvers his ride and if he goes for the bonus points will be interesting to watch.  And, if he wins, well the usual characters that say NASCAR is rigged will be out in full force.

Chase Elliott – Dale Earnhardt Jr’s teammate has scored the pole for the Daytona 500 for the second year in a row.  Proving that Hendrick Motorsports has speed under the hood by winning the pole and his Can-Am Duel race, Elliott is having a great Speedweeks… so far.  Last year’s Rookie of the Year has more to prove and a sophomore slump to bust as well.  Being the pole winner doesn’t make you a winner since it’s been quite a while since the pole sitter won this race, but it puts Elliott in the front pack and gives him a great seat to track down those bonus points at the end of Stage 1.  Staying at the front and out of trouble will be key for Chase to improve on his 37th place finish last season in the Daytona 500 and start off his sophomore season on the right track.

Joe Gibbs Racing (with Furniture Row Motorsports) – Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez started off practice at Daytona by showing everyone their plan – running nose to tail in their Toyotas and ignoring everyone else on the track.  The JGR team showed a number of times last season that they were the team to beat at a lot of tracks.  Along with Furniture Row Racing, the Toyotas won sixteen races last season.  Can they start off the 2017 season with the same dominance?  While success at Daytona doesn’t exactly equal success for the season, it looks like it will be more of the same this season.  Last year’s Daytona 500 winner Hamlin and runner up Truex should again be considered contenders.  Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and almost had his third win last year, leading with one lap to go.  Busch is always in the mix.  Add rookies Suarez and Erik Jones and there are six challengers amongst those teams that have a great shot at winning the race.  It will be interesting to see how these six drivers can work together and if they can keep others out of their club.

Will Ford Challenge The Toyotas – Team Penske now has the championship team of Stewart-Haas Racing joining them in the Ford oval and will be looking to prove they are a stronger group than the Toyotas.  While there hasn’t been a lot of love lost between the Penske and SHR drivers, they will now get to work together as manufacturer teammates.  Kevin Harvick working with Joey Logano, can it be true?  The mixture of these teams could be explosive, the question is will it be good or bad.  Daytona will have these teams working together on the track, but that isn’t necessarily a new experience since these drivers have worked together before.  At some point it doesn’t matter the manufacturer of the car it matters if that car can help you get to the front.  It is working together off the track that can help these teams improve throughout the season and that will remain to be seen.

Jimmie Johnson – In what has become an age of racing champions and championship contenders retiring early, Jimmie Johnson is now challenging to win a record eighth NASCAR Cup Championship.  Love him or hate him, Johnson is arguably the greatest driver the sport has ever seen.  Johnson will continue to be one to watch as he chases history and we are in the best seats to watch.  Johnson has won seven championships, matching NASCAR greats Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.  While the rules and circumstances have changed, as they had between Petty’s run and Earnhardt’s run, the results are the same.  Jimmie Johnson beat all drivers in seven seasons to be the top driver in the sport and win the championship.  Now, can he do it one more time?

So, here we go.  Happy Daytona Day!  Enjoy the start of the season watching these stars and more get back on the track.  And, yes they are stars (no matter what some kind of ‘street’ newspaper thinks about them).

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