For the second straight season the Daytona 500 winner led only one lap, the last lap, and Sunday’s winner Austin Dillon paid out at a chunky 50-to-1 odds offered at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, which the book said they still ended up showing a small profit.
NASCAR’s season kicked off with a bang they were hoping for in an era where the sport is trying its hardest to attract new fans. Rookie Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., the first full time African-American driver since Wendell Scott in 1971, ended up finishing second in Richard Petty’s famed No. 43. Denny Hamlin would finish an inch behind him in third.
Half of the NASCAR nation got to see what they wanted, the famed No. 3 back in victory lane at Daytona 20 years after Dale Earnhardt finally triumphed in the most elusive race of his career. It was a big win for NASCAR and its future is going to be just fine moving forward.
As much as we all wanted to see the No. 3 win, I couldn’t help but feel some pain for Aric Almirola who was leading with half a lap to go until getting punted by Dillon. It wasn’t even one of those “whoops, sorry” type of things. It was blatant, intended, on purpose and it’s like he got a free pass because we all had No. 3 blinders on. What would you do to win the Daytona 500? Just about anything, right?
In that small moment when Almirola was leading, I had several things immediately swirling through my head, such as Almirola’s only career win being a rain shortened race at Daytona in July of 2014. I also thought about Stewart Haas Racing winning the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year in almost the same fashion as Kurt Busch.
But the Almirola possible storyline that rung loudest just before he got punted was Danica Patrick drove the SHR No. 10 for the past six seasons and never had a top-five finish in 190 starts. Patrick got involved in a wreck in what was her last race in NASCAR. Can you imagine her post-race emotions of her not only walking away from the sport after falling well short of everyone’s expectations, but also watching her old car win the Daytona 500 in the first race without her? That would have been the cruelest goodbye.
Anyway, let’s move on to Atlanta, the first of 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks this season. This type of track is where the season championship is won. Everything you saw at Daytona on Sunday has nothing to do with this week at Atlanta. Throw the results sheet away. It means nothing this week.
What you can do to get your handicapping process started this week is take a look at the results from the 1.5-mile tracks last season. Not much has changed on the cars in 2018, with the exception of the new Chevrolet Camaro body.
Last season Martin Truex Jr. won seven of the 11 races on 1.5s on his way to the season championship. In the four races he didn’t win on these tracks, he finished second at Texas and led the most laps, third at Charlotte and led the most laps, and eighth each at Texas in the spring and Atlanta.
While acknowledging Truex is the best on 1.5s, also keep in mind he’s never won at Atlanta in 19 career starts. He’s got two top-five finishes with an 18th place average finish over that span. Still, he’s the well deserved favorite to win.
After Truex Jr, the other stars on 1.5s in 2017 were Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
Brad Keselowski won this race last season, but Team Penske’s 1.5-mile program dramatically fell off after the May race at Kansas. Keselowski didn’t have a top-five finish in his final seven starts on 1.5s. Neither did his teammate Joey Logano.
Jimmie Johnson is the active leader with five Atlanta wins over 26 starts where he’s averaged an 11th-place finish. However, Johnson’s performances on 1.5s fell off following his Texas win in April – no top-fives in his last eight starts on 1.5s.
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott hails from Georgia and he’s been outstanding in his first two Cup starts on his home track. He was fifth last season and eighth during rookie year.
In Kevin Harvick’s third career Cup start in 2001, he won at Atlanta for his first win. It was only three weeks after he took over the No. 3 when Dale Earnhardt passed away at Daytona and changed the car number to No. 29. Last season Harvick finished the season on a tear on these tracks with top-five finishes in four of his final five attempts, including a Texas win. Something to also consider in handicapping this week is checking out the testing speeds from three weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout.
Kyle Larson was fastest in three of the sessions and Hendrick Motorsports rookie William Byron was fastest in another.
Note: Brendan Gaughan in the South Point car was in the final 10 that was part of a 2-lap shootout to the wire. Gaughan unfortunately was involved in that multi-car crash.