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The 61st running of the Daytona 500 officially kicks off the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season Sunday afternoon, but the 2019 action has already begun with the volatile Advance Auto Parts Clash last week that saw 14 of the 20 cars wreck in a rain-shortened non-points race won by Jimmie Johnson at 25-to-1 odds.

We’ll learn more to the story on this year’s Daytona 500 by watching the two qualifying races (Duels 60 laps each) Thursday night and then the final practices on Friday and Saturday. But don’t expect many teams to practice much. They’ll have plenty of data already after the Duels and the Clash and no team wants to mess their primary cars up.

Denny Hamlin already has lost two cars between just two times on the track, wrecking in Saturday’s Clash practice and then caught up in the late pile up in the Clash.

The teams, drivers, and fans all learned a lot from the Clash. The first thing is that the new Mustang body on the Fords is almost as good as last years Fusion. The second thing is that it’s hard to pass and the third thing is that nobody wants to try the bottom line. Every driver simply gets in line and runs the top groove and those that try the bottom quickly fade to the back fast.

Ryan Newman finished ninth in the Clash but was running in fifth most of the race in his first start in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford. He had his own list of what he learned.

“We learned a few things today,” Newman said. “Number one, watch the (weather) radar. Number two, there’s gonna be a crash, and, number three, we’ve got to work on our car and make it just a little bit better for just raw speed and some driveability. It looked like it was pretty much follow the leader.

“Hopefully, the more cars that get on the race track that will change and make the racing a little bit more exciting.”

There will be 40 cars starting Sunday, 38 of which have already qualified and the two other spots will be between four drivers that will have to race their way in Thursday’s Duels. Las Vegas’ own Brendan Gaughan is one of those four drivers and his No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet has been very good in restrictor-plate races. As the son of South Point owner Michael Gaughan, he’ll also be carrying the South Point logo on his paint scheme. If Gaughan qualifies, the Daytona 500 will have three Las Vegas boys racing in it for the third straight year with Gaughan joining Kurt and Kyle Busch.

Another thing we leaned in the Clash is that the side-draft is much more pronounced and effective with the shorter spoiler this year.

“Any time you can get up beside somebody by an inch or so it just is such a big parachute on either side of the car,” Hamlin said of the side-draft. “The moment you can break that plane, it’s amazing how much these cars get drug back versus cars in the past.

“Really, I try to work on the defense of that more than anything. You know it’s there. You just want to put yourself in the position that if you’re going to get passed, put them on the correct side of what side you want to get passed on that way you have a good defense when you get beside them.”

My sincere hope for the sake of the sport on its biggest day is that more drivers try the bottom line and somehow find a way to make it work. The last thing I want to see is 199 laps around this massive 2.5-mile high-banked layout with 40 cars lined up single file afraid to make a move until the last lap. The idea in plate racing has always been to either get up front early or play it safe the rest of the way just to have an opportunity to be near the front and then make something happen on the last lap.

Johnson played the game well last week and as the rain approached while sitting in second place behind a dominant Paul Menard, a desperate Johnson who didn’t win a single race last season for the first time in his career made his move. Menard tried to block, lost control and started a chain reaction of unsuspecting cars getting in each other’s way. Two years ago, a comfortable Johnson doesn’t attempt that move. but a new sponsor and new crew chief gave Johnson a new hunger and new purpose.

As for Johnson to win the Daytona 500 at 25-to-1 odds again, it’s not likely. During Sunday’s qualifying, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron won the pole. The top four speeds were all from the Hendrick stable. Only the front row is set, so Johnson will have to finalize his starting spot in Thursday’s duels. Only six times in the 38-year history of the Clash has the winner gone on to win the Daytona 500 the following week. The last was Hamlin in 2016 and I believe I chose him to win each time here in Gaming Today.

Ford is the big favorite to win Sunday just because of how they looked in the Clash and recent years dominating in plates races. They’ve won five of the past nine races at Daytona and seven straight at Talladega Superspeedway, the other restrictor-plate race track. Brad Keselowski leads all active drivers with six plate wins and his Penske teammate Joey Logano, the 2018 Cup Champion, has four plate wins. Ryan Blaney looks just as good and Menard will be strong as well in the No. 21.

There’s also Ricky Stenhouse Jr from Roush who has just two Cup wins and they both came in plate races in 2017. His new teammate is 2008 Daytona 500 Newman. And then there’s the Stewart Haas Racing Fords led by 2007 Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola who has two Cup wins both in plates race, Clint Bowyer (2 plate wins) and newcomer Daniel Suarez in the No. 41 who was one of the few to make consistent passes in the Clash.

Wow, these Fords are stacked.

As for betting strategy, the volatility of the track makes it a crap shoot which changes a normal betting strategy from races on no-plate tracks. Qualifying doesn’t matter much, nor does practices. Luck plays a major role so betting match-ups aren’t as attractive like they are on tracks where practice speeds transfer well into race day.

For plate races, I like to bet five or six drivers and stagger my allotted bankroll on a favorite or two, a mid-level driver and then a long shot or two. The best longshots of the bunch are Menard (40/1), Newman (50/1) and last year’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon (40/1).

For the win, I’m going with Keselowski to capture his first Daytona 500 and I think it will come down to a battle between him and his teammates with Hamlin and Kurt Busch doing the final lap pressing on them.

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