Daytona’s opening act happened Sunday with the Advance Auto Parts Clash and while it was only 75 laps, it worked well as a snack to appease my hunger for some NASCAR action, which last occurred in November. On Sunday, NASCAR offers the 60th Daytona 500.
Most sports like to start their season gradually and have the big finale. NASCAR says the heck with that, let’s start out with a bang and offer our biggest showcase for the entire nation to watch and quickly re-acclimate themselves with driver changes, a look at the rookies plus learning the new rule changes. I don’t know if I would want it any other way.
The Clash was a great glimpse at what to expect this week with Thursday’s qualifying races and Sunday’s Daytona 500. There is no longer a ride-height rule for the restrictor-plate races. Crews are taking advantage by basically dropping the cars all the way to the asphalt. They look like a bunch of low-riders out there, but the effect is gaining the most speed.
Despite no ride-height rule, everything that happened in the Clash looked exactly like what we’ve been seeing the past three seasons – except the handling now is not as good. Fords have been dominant, Toyota is almost there as an equal and Chevrolet is still a little behind despite having the new body design of the Camaro ZL1.
“My outlook is very positive,” said two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson (15/1) regarding the new Camaro. “When you look what we did with the previous generation car, we had five seasons with no upgrades and still stayed awfully competitive. We’re going to be in much better shape this season from a competition standpoint.”
The Camaro was fast by itself during qualifying and single lap simulations – Alex Bowman in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 won the pole on Sunday, but once the cars got all jumbled together in the draft, the cream rose to the top with the Penske Fords and Joe Gibbs Toyotas being the best.
Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who leads the series with six restrictor-plate wins, took the checkers in the Clash aided by teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano basically blocking while sitting second and third in the last few laps.
The two more to go would be Thursday’s Can-Am Duels and the Daytona 500. No one has ever won all three races during Speedways, but five drivers have won the Clash and the 500 in the same season, the last being in 2016 with Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski is the Westgate SuperBook’s 8-to-1 favorite just because of being the best in plate races, but for whatever reason the Daytona 500 has been a thorn in his side with a best of third-place in 2014. It’s not unusual for the 500 to start playing mind games with great drivers where it takes an entire career to win it or sometimes never.
Dale Earnhardt was the best superspeedway driver of all-time and dominated the exhibition races during Speedweeks, but it took him 20 seasons before winning his first (1998) despite having the best car in half those starts. It took Darrell Waltrip 17 years to win (1989). Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte and Las Vegan Kyle Busch never won the biggest race in their sport over their great careers.
Joey Logano (10/1) got his first Daytona 500 win in 2015 and followed it up with sixth-place finishes in 2016 and 2017. Ryan Blaney is in his first season as an official Penske driver and finished second in last year’s 500 while driving the Wood Brothers’ famed No. 21, which had its equipment built by Penske. I believe Blaney offers the most value at 25-to-1. And if looking for the best long shot on the board, try Paul Menard at 50-to-1. He’s taken over the No. 21 from Blaney and last year at Daytona was fifth and third in the two races, the best average among all drivers.
Another top Ford driver is Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who burst onto the scene last season with his first two career wins, both coming on plates races at Daytona and Talladega. But the cat is out of the bag now and he’s only offered at 12-1.
Ford has won the past three points-paying races at Daytona and the last five at Talladega. Las Vegan Kurt Busch (20/1) won the 500 last season in the first race after Stewart Haas Racing switched from Chevrolet to Ford. Kevin Harvick (10/1) won the 2007 Daytona 500 and is also part of SHR, as well as Aric Almirola (30/1) who takes over the No. 10 for Danica Patrick (100/1) who is now in the No. 7. This will be Patrick’s last race in NASCAR. She’ll also race in the Indianapolis 500 and then call it quits. Clint Bowyer (20/1) is in the SHR No. 14 and finished second in the July Daytona race last season. He loves plate racing, too.
I’m rolling with the Gibbs Toyota driven by Denny Hamlin (10/1) just because he’s got this Daytona drafting thing down well and he’s got a car on par with the Penske trio. He starts on the front row and has seven career wins during Daytona Speedweeks.
I’ll also be rooting for another Las Vegan, Brendan Gaughan, who drives the No. 62 Chevy for Beard Motorsports. Last season in a limited schedule Gaughan finished 11th and seventh in the two Daytona races. Those finishes have given other drivers confidence to trust Gaughan in the draft and I expect another quality finish.
Brendan’s father, Michael Gaughan, owns the South Point and they’ll be hosting a 500 party in the showroom, which features a giant HD movie screen, booming audio system, cheap drinks and prizes given away throughout the race. Root for our three Vegas drivers and show some city pride. It was kind of cool last season when Kurt Busch won it.