The last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series visited Daytona International Speedway, the season-opening Daytona 500 turned into a game of Survivor. A series of late-race wrecks eliminated major contenders, including a surprising Matt DiBenedetto, and left the race sitting in Denny Hamlin's hands. Hamlin's second Daytona 500 victory came in his first race with new crew chief Chris Gabehart; it was also part of a 1-2-3 Joe Gibbs Racing finish. Team Penske's Joey Logano ran fourth as top-tier teams from Toyota and Ford made an early statement.
Five months later, a return to Daytona finds the same faces in the same places up front. There's been no 500 curse this year; Hamlin has won a second time and sits sixth in the series point standings. Kyle Busch, the Daytona 500 runner-up is second in points with four wins of his own. Overall, JGR has won 10 of 17 Cup races (add four from Martin Truex Jr.) heading into the season's halfway point. Penske, on the heels of Logano and Brad Keselowski, sits second with five races won.
Will their dominance come full circle at Daytona? Qualifying got rained out, setting the field through owner points and putting either a Penske or JGR car in five of the top six starting spots. Truex and Busch led the way in practice, with the former posting an average lap speed of nearly 206 miles an hour. It's the fastest we've seen Cup cars here since 1987 in the first Daytona race with the new tapered spacer package.
Loosening the reins on speed should favor the dominant teams like JGR and Penske, both of whom head to Daytona with the most horsepower. But this race has a history of Cinderella stories, producing nine different winners in nine 400-mile races this decade. Among them were three first-time faces in victory lane: David Ragan (2011), Aric Almirola (2014) and Erik Jones last year.
Short stages of 50, 50 and 60 laps should help the underdogs with their cause. But this race could be a referendum on JGR and Penske after Alex Bowman's surprising breakthrough at Chicagoland Speedway last week. Can they quickly reclaim their position at the top of the sport, fighting through the Russian Roulette style of drafting that often claims Daytona's fastest drivers? Or will a non-JGR or Penske car go winless for the second week in a row? Believe it or not, that would be the first time such a slump has happened in a 2019 NASCAR season dominated by a select few.
Coke Zero Sugar 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Alex Bowman led the way for a sudden Hendrick surge, earning his first career Cup Series victory. But HMS could be proud of all four of its teams, each of whom finished 11th or better. Jimmie Johnson ran fourth, his best finish in over a year while leading 10 laps. William Byron was eighth, leading his seventh straight Cup race and seemingly on the verge of a breakthrough with crew chief Chad Knaus. And Chase Elliott (11th) now has six top-11 finishes in the past eight races to climb up to seventh in the standings.
Who's at the Back: Clint Bowyer
It's been a bad few weeks for Bowyer, two wrecks in three races suddenly leaving him vulnerable to missing the playoffs. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver collected a grand total of three points in those events, seeing his cushion over the bubble plummet from 60 points to just 15. He's now in the 16th and final playoff spot, leaving little margin for error heading to a track where unsuspecting victims risk getting caught in the Big One on every turn.
Kaulig Racing produced the first 1-2 finish in its history with an impressive performance in Friday night's NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Ross Chastain, running a limited schedule with the team, took the win while full-time driver Justin Haley wound up second. Kaulig actually crossed the finish line with the top three cars but AJ Allmendinger got disqualified in post-race inspection.
Daytona Cup practice this week was marred by contact between Brad Keselowski and William Byron. Keselowski felt Byron blocked him and hit the rear bumper of the No. 24, sending him sliding down into the apron. The resulting damage forced Byron to a backup car while Keselowski spouted off about how blocking has gone too far. "I've had to make a decision to risk myself on being loaded up on the trailer and watching the end of the race or drive through the guy in front of me," he said. "I've been too conservative and ended up watching too many of these plate races from the back of the trailer, and that is not the responsible thing to do for my team."
NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ryan Sieg has a new full-time sponsor for 2020. The family-owned team, which has overachieved this season in underfunded equipment signed CMR Construction & Roofing after the company sponsored the team in a handful of races this year.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Winless Cup Series starts for Alex Bowman before breaking through at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend.
Drivers who have finished all 17 races held thus far this season: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Ty Dillon.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Daytona is like playing the roulette wheel at your local casino: put a number down and just see what happens. Lady luck plays more of a role at superspeedway racing than any other type of track on the circuit; a top-tier driver could go from leading in turn 3 to flipping upside down exiting turn 4. That's the nature of pack racing and the Big One which has dominated competition here through the past three decades.
That said, a move to the tapered spacers could benefit Joe Gibbs Racing. In particular, Martin Truex Jr. is hungry for a win down in Daytona. He's never won here but finished runner-up in this race a year ago. It's clear JGR has the speed but Truex’s overall track record (four top-10 finishes in 28 Daytona starts) may make him a cheaper selection among this group. Go for him over Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin.
Over on the Team Penske side, Brad Keselowski has been making the most noise. But he's crashed out in four of the last five Daytona races. Teammate Joey Logano is the much safer pick, earning top 10s in five of the last seven events held here. It's not flashy but sometimes simply surviving at this racetrack is all you need for a top-10 result.
Austin Dillon, last year's Daytona 500 winner, is increasingly desperate to earn a postseason bid. It looks more and more like he'll have to win to do it, ratcheting up the pressure heading to his best track on the circuit. Daytona has produced seven top-10 finishes in 12 starts, an almost-unheard-of number considering the randomness at which wrecks are created here.
Defending winner Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among the middle-tier drivers in must-win situations. Jones is the defending race winner here while Stenhouse triumphed in 2017; both are looked at as exceptional superspeedway racers. But add them to your roster at your own risk; the aggression they'll need to use Saturday night to get up front could also lead to a devastating early DNF.
Matt DiBenedetto is returning to the scene of the best NASCAR race of his career. He led a race-high 49 laps in February's Daytona 500 before track position and bad timing turned his No. 95 into junk. DiBenedetto had another opportunity at Talladega this year before another big wreck ruined a chance at a solid finish. At some point, his luck at these tracks is going to turn itself around.
David Ragan scored his first ever win at Daytona and has a knack for getting around superspeedways. His Front Row Motorsports team has also won at these types of tracks (Talladega in 2013) and produced a sixth-place finish with Ragan at the wheel in July 2017. Don’t count him out.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch is a solid 3/1 favorite entering the Daytona event. Kevin Harvick sits in second at 9/2 while Martin Truex Jr. is third at 6/1. Brad Keselowski, post-incident with William Byron sits fourth at 8/1 odds.
What I Think
Martin Truex Jr. is due to reach victory lane at this type of track. He wheels the No. 19 to the front for his series-leading fifth win of the season at NASCAR's halfway point.
— 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.