Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and last week’s winner Kyle Busch have outright dominated the first half of the NASCAR season. Through 17 races, they’ve combined to win 15 of them while collecting a whopping 75 percent of all playoff points.
There’s just one place this Fab Foursome has failed to cash in: restrictor plate tracks. Forced NASCAR parity in the form of those tamped-down engines leads to surprise winners and one of the last chances this season for an underdog to crack the postseason ceiling. Austin Dillon has already cashed in, his Daytona 500 victory more than compensating for an underwhelming season that would find him well outside playoff position otherwise.
Joey Logano, who’s had a solid year in his own right, took the next plate race at Talladega. But it’s Daytona that has leaned itself to Cinderella stories as of late. Among the winners here this decade besides Dillon are Aric Almirola (back when driving the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports), Trevor Bayne and last year’s winner, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse blew by David Ragan of Front Row Motorsports on the final restart last July; a victory from Ragan’s No. 34 would be just the third win for small-time FRM in their decade-plus of existence on the Cup level.
With plenty of drivers struggling through sluggish seasons, their ability to master the draft could be their only ticket into the playoffs. Here are a couple of win-or-bust options I expect to run at or near the front Saturday night.
Darrell Wallace Jr.: He ran a shocking second at the Daytona 500, the best run for an African-American at this level outside of Wendell Scott’s victory at Jacksonville back in 1964. The emotional press conference and post-race interviews led to national attention; people thought this rookie was prepped to overachieve in Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43.
But then... Wallace has all but disappeared. Trailing William Byron in the Rookie of the Year race, he’s earned just one top-15 finish since then (eighth at Texas in April). It would take another performance here, on a national stage to vault him back into the spotlight.
Trevor Bayne: Bayne has, in essence, lost his ride for 2019 after Matt Kenseth replaced him for much of the last two months. If not for sponsor Advocare, it’s possible he would be out on the street completely. But the longtime backer has him back in the car this weekend with a team in Roush Fenway Racing that won last year with Stenhouse.
Kenseth’s struggles in the No. 6 car gave Bayne hope during his benching that the problems aren’t all his fault. Could a plate race win be a perfect audition at the right time with his career hanging in the balance?
Jamie McMurray: It’s been an awful year for McMurray, sitting 20th in points as rumors about his future begin to swirl in what’s otherwise a weak Silly Season year. After nearly a decade driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, just three top-10 finishes in 17 races isn’t going to cut it with teammate Kyle Larson the best driver for Chevrolet right now.
But four of McMurray’s seven career victories have come on plate tracks. Could Daytona be the saving grace for him to salvage a lost season? The 2010 Daytona 500 winner, shockingly enough hasn’t run inside the top 5 here since sneaking to the top in NASCAR’s Super Bowl. He’s due for another run near the front.
Honorable Mention: Stenhouse, the defending Daytona champ and first driver outside the playoff bubble. He could easily make it on points but a victory Saturday night would be the golden ticket. And Ragan can always make it interesting with Front Row Motorsports, although you wonder if last year’s race was his best chance for a while.
Cinderella, up to this point has run off and hid during this NASCAR season dominated by a select few. But Saturday night gives her one last chance to show off that glass slipper.
Will anyone reach out and take it?
2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
No, they didn’t win last weekend. That was Kyle Busch in an epic battle with Kyle Larson on the final lap. But hidden behind their phenomenal finish, one in which Busch hit Larson entering Turn 3 was how well SHR as a whole performed behind them.
Aric Almirola may have had the fastest car and may have won if not for a handful of loose wheels. Clint Bowyer charged to the front early only to be derailed by pit penalties. Kevin Harvick won a stage over teammate Kurt Busch in a thrilling finish all their own. Together, all four cars led a substantial amount of laps.
They’re NASCAR’s best team right now, top to bottom. It wouldn’t be a shocker to see all of them in at least the Round of 8 deep in the playoffs.
Who’s at the Back: David Ragan
One of the best underdogs at plate tracks (see above) Ragan’s coming into the weekend limping. A 38th-place finish at Chicagoland was his second such run in the last three races. He wrecked out at Michigan and could do no better than 22nd at Sonoma.
Toyota has decided to run the Supra in the 2019 NASCAR XFINITY Series. The newly-designed sports car replaces the Camry at the same time it’ll debut on the open market for the first time in nearly two decades.
NASCAR XFINITY Series driver Spencer Gallagher has been reinstated after failing a drug test earlier this season. Gallagher, who won in his GMS Racing ride earlier this year, will return to the No. 23 but is no longer eligible for the playoffs due to his infraction. The specific drug he tested positive for has never been disclosed.
Legendary motorsports journalist Steve Waid was selected this week as the latest recipient of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Waid has covered the sport for nearly 50 years including a longtime stint at what was once the industry’s must-read stock car magazine, NASCAR Scene.
After a difficult season, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s debut in the broadcast booth may have helped NASCAR in the Nielsens. Chicagoland posted a year-to-year increase in ratings and viewership, just the second such one we’ve seen on the Cup level so far this season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
More points second-place finisher Kyle Larson scored last weekend despite losing a last-lap battle with winner Kyle Busch. Larson had scored points in earlier stages while Busch received no such bonus.
Current victory drought for Chevrolet on the Cup Series level. They haven’t visited Victory Lane since Austin Dillon in February’s Daytona 500.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Once again, the focus surrounds the Fab Four. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch aren’t guaranteed to win, like it’s been lately but should run at or near the front. However, my suggestion is a slight step below: Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney. Blaney led the most laps in February’s race before a late wreck derailed his chances. Teammate Joey Logano then went on to win the next plate event, at Talladega, to show this group hasn’t lost any speed. With 463 laps led this season, Blaney has the most of any driver on the circuit who hasn’t won.
Aric Almirola feels like this track owes him one after getting spun on the last lap of February’s race. Without that contact, Almirola may have been your Daytona 500 winner. The No. 10 team took a lot of confidence out of their Chicagoland performance and their driver? He’s won at this track as recently as the Coke Zero 400 race in 2014.
Other top options were listed above in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jamie McMurray. McMurray especially will be cheaper in daily fantasy leagues after his recent 2018 slump.
I’d go with Darrell Wallace Jr. out of the group mentioned earlier, but Trevor Bayne is a solid pick too.
Want to think waaaaay outside the box? Brendan Gaughan ran seventh in this race last year driving the No. 75 Beard Motorsports car. As long as he qualifies, this team knows how to manage their equipment, avoid the Big One and be around at the finish.
What Vegas Thinks
Teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano are on top of the charts with 7/1 odds. Kevin Harvick sits just behind them at 9/1.
What I Think
I’m going with Aric Almirola to get revenge after missing out on that Daytona 500 win. But don’t be surprised if a Cinderella shows up. Jamie McMurray or even Darrell Wallace Jr. in the winner’s circle wouldn’t surprise me.
-- Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)