Mash The Gas: NASCAR Daytona 500 Preview

Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney lead the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. [Photo by Brian Lawdermilk]

Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney lead the field during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. [Photo by Brian Lawdermilk]

by John Wiedemann

It’s a new season with new drivers, new rules and new tools as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup teams take to the Daytona International Speedway to kick off the 2018 season with the Daytona 500.

One can only look at the video and images from last year’s Daytona 500 to see what it means to win the prestigious race. Driver Kurt Busch and crew chief Tony Gibson showed how emotional it was for two longtime competitors in stock car racing to accomplish the feat of being a Daytona 500 champion.

This season a new inspection station called “Hawkeye”, hand-out air guns and five pit members over the wall are some of the changes intended to level the playing field between the top and bottom teams. Teams have talked about how the new “Hawkeye” inspection will eliminate the massaging areas of the car that were not checked by the old inspection system. “Hawkeye” sees all.

The NASCAR issued pit guns will eliminate the advantage of the top teams who reportedly spent seven figures on gun development. Couple the new air guns with the five members over the wall and pitstops will have a whole new feel, times will be down and confusion will probably cause even slower stops as the teams figure out the new rules.

Then there are new drivers to the series and drivers on new teams this year. With top restrictor plate racers and two-time Daytona 500 winners Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr not in the field, who will be the drivers that step up?

Team Penske may have the best shot at the Daytona 500 trophy with a loaded lineup. Brad Keselowski has yet to win the 500 but he and teammate Joey Logano, who has won the 500, are amongst the top restrictor plate races. Add new teammate Ryan Blaney, who won a Duel race, and the team is strong. Blaney will start the race in third with Logano behind him in fifth. Keselowski will start in the back of the pack due to having to go to a backup car after his Duel wreck. Expect Keselowski to join his teammates at the front pretty quickly. My pick to win the Daytona 500 is Brad Keselowski.

Last year’s winner Kurt Busch is joined by his teammates Kevin Harvick (2007 Daytona 500 winner), Clint Bowyer and newcomer Aric Almirola. A top Ford team last season, along with Penske, this team should also be added to the list of favorites. Fords were quick last season at the big tracks but struggled at the popular intermediate tracks. We will have to wait a bit to see if they have improved over the off season on the other tracks, but when they are at a restrictor plate tracks they will need to make the most of it.

The Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing were the class of the series with Martin Truex Jr. dominating the season in wins and points and JGR drivers starting slow but finishing strong. With a new body in 2017 the Toyota teams have now had a year of data to look at in the off season and see if they can make their cars even better that what they were at the end of last season. The only issue they seemed to have was competing with the Fords at Daytona and Talladega. We will see this weekend if they can pass the Fords.

Speaking of Fords, again, the one guy that was the best at superspeedways was Ricky Stenhouse Jr who won at Talladega in the spring and again at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Stenhouse had only two other top five finishes last season and has a career best 7th place finish at the Daytona 500, but he has the confidence after his wins last year and should be a factor in the race this weekend.

Chevrolets have a new body and are hoping to have their Camaro find the success that the Toyotas found last season. At Daytona the team leading the Chevy charge will be Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray for Chip Ganassi racing. Larson may have won the 500 last season but ran out of fuel on the closing laps and teammate McMurray won the Daytona 500 in 2010 and has always been considered a smart plate racer. Hendrick Motorsports has also made noise at Daytona with Earnhardt Jr’s replacement Alex Bowman on the pole and Chase Elliott winning a Duel race again this season. Oh yeah, they also have that guy named Jimmie Johnson, he’s pretty good, and they have a rookie that wins everything – William Byron. Don’t forget about Richard Childress Racing with two drivers, Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman (2008 Daytona 500 winner) as well as Petty Enterprises driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace. Either of those three would not be a surprise to take the prize.

Of course, there will be wrecks including probably one “big one” and that factor brings in the “anyone in the field can win” mentality. That being said, it’s the guys and gals that know how to run up front who will be the ones to watch and probably the one’s at the end fighting for the checkers.

Happy Daytona Day!

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