The points-paying NASCAR season kicks off with a sold-out crowd expected on Sunday for a rejuvenated 2022 Daytona 500. The 64th edition of the Great American Race comes at a time of great optimism, more than the sport has seen in over a decade. In fact, two buzzwords have stood out this week when I’ve walked the garage, both of which this sport has yearned to hear.
Momentum and unpredictability.
Momentum: NASCAR just pulled off a magical Los Angeles exhibition, a Clash held at the Coliseum delivering the race its best audience in six years. The sport’s new Next Gen chassis has sparked fresh interest from fans along with potential new ownership by lowering the cost of entry.
Among those joining the Cup Series this season: Matt Kaulig, whose team won a crown jewel race last season (Indianapolis Road Course) driving a limited schedule. Boxer Floyd Mayweather debuts his No. 50 car nearly two years in the making, squeaking into the Daytona 500 field this week on the final lap of a qualifier with driver Kaz Grala. French Canadian and Formula 1 champion Jacques Villeneuve is jumping in, running a limited Cup schedule with a new team at age 50. Even the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, has partnered with African-American driver Jesse Iwuji to run a full-time entry in the Xfinity Series as NASCAR continues to diversify.
On-track, fresh rivalries are brewing, veterans clashing with youngsters as the transition between them is underway. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott stood out during last fall’s playoff but they’re far from the only one. Drama is palpable everywhere you look, from Chase Briscoe’s run-ins with Denny Hamlin to Kyle Busch sniping at fellow Toyota driver Bubba Wallace last October.
And about those young drivers: they’ve built themselves a fan base, whether it’s a generational thing (Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, now rookie Harrison Burton), a breaking new ground thing (Wallace winning Talladega, just the second African-American to win a Cup race) or simply breaking the competition in two (Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup champion and 10-race winner).
Add in the L.A. success, the latest in a recent schedule shakeup, and NASCAR has positioned itself to reinvent its popularity over the next decade.
Unpredictability: That’s where the Next Gen comes in. Notice we haven’t talked about the race itself at Daytona because literally no one knows what to expect. Even in the 60-lap qualifying Duels Thursday night, it felt like drivers were babying their way through in order to preserve equipment for Sunday. The end result was almost the first caution-free Duels since 2003 (until a final-lap crash in Duel 2). As to how the Next Gen races three-wide, bump drafts or handles a 40-car pack remains a relative unknown.
There’s also concern about these cars going the distance. A handful of parts failures in L.A. reminded everyone of the not-so-distant era when engines failed, axles broke apart and people needed to use the garage for repairs. My take? That unpredictability can be a good thing, keeping fans engaged all race long as a 10-second lead is never really safe.
That means going through how this race will unfold is a waste of space. The first full Next Gen event at a superspeedway where no one’s really showed their cards? You might as well blindfold yourself and start swinging a pinata. But I will mention a third word salad I’ve heard that should make NASCAR fans a little nervous.
It’s my only fear about what could be one of the best 500s we’ve seen in a generation. A lack of parts has led to a lack of cars, teams are concerned a bunch of early-season crashes could wipe out their entire fleet. Does that mean people will play tiptoe a little too much Sunday, leading to large stretches of single-file action to play it safe?
My gut says no, the allure of that Harley J. Earl trophy is just too much in the most important race of the year. But as we head to Auto Club Speedway and beyond, it’s a storyline that bears watching and, at minimum, could limit how often new teams show up at the track.
For now, the hope is Sunday keeps a sold-out crowd smiling after a sizzling start to the year. NASCAR has high hopes for 2022.
I don’t think they’ll wind up disappointed.
Date: Sunday, Feb. 20
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500
Who's at the Front: Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing
Wednesday went as expected in Daytona qualifying: Hendrick Motorsports placing both their cars on the front row, earning yet another Daytona pole (Larson). But Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher sweeping the Duel races? Two weeks after looking like an also-ran out in L.A.?
That’s one straight out of left field.
“There’s a lot of guys and gals on my team that have never won a race before,” Keselowski said after the first-ever Duel win for Roush’s No. 6. “It’s really important to get that winning habit built up, and the only way you can really do that is to go win. That builds confidence in each other and builds expectations.”
That tone has been set, Buescher finishing the job for the first-ever Duels sweep for a Jack Roush-owned team since entering the series in 1988. Can they keep the good times rolling through Sunday?
Who's at the Back: Toyota
Only one Toyota driver, Kyle Busch, is starting inside the top 10 in the season opener after a subpar week for this manufacturer. Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin spun entering pit road during his Duel race and the entire fleet appears a step behind, failing to lead a lap in either qualifying event.
Brad Keselowski’s Duel celebration was short-lived as NASCAR confiscated the wheels of his RFK Racing team along with Team Penske. The issue occurred during a spot check by NASCAR officials Friday morning, with Keselowski claiming officials were concerned about “safety changes” his team made to those tires. No penalties have been announced yet and both organizations claim they still have enough sets issued by Goodyear to make it through final practice and the Daytona 500.
Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick claimed contract extensions are coming “pretty soon” for young superstars William Byron and Chase Elliott. While both are in the final year of their deals, Hendrick claimed, “I want those guys to be with us forever” and made clear both want to remain with HMS long-term.
After qualifying for the Daytona 500, Hezemans Racing has picked up a one-race primary sponsor for Jacques Villeneuve. Woodie’s Wash Shack owner Don Phillips, a motorsports enthusiast, stepped up to back the No. 27 as Team Hezeberg makes its debut on the Cup circuit. They’ll be running a limited schedule of road courses and short tracks with Villeneuve and rookie Loris Hezemans.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Years since Greg Biffle last ran a NASCAR Cup Series race (November 2016 at Homestead-Miami Speedway). That changes Sunday as the 52-year-old earned a spot in the field, qualifying in his Duel with the No. 44 of NY Racing.
Starts for Martin Truex, Jr. without a Daytona 500 victory, the longest winless streak of any active driver in the Great American Race.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to ignore the teamwork Fords have exhibited during the last few years of superspeedway races. They were at it again during the qualifying Duels, sweeping the top-3 finishers and executing the right pit strategy to get out front.
I’d go with blue-chip Blue Oval performers less likely to wind up wrecked. Joey Logano crashed while leading the last lap of his Duel event, making a mistake he’s not likely to make twice. The 2015 Daytona 500 winner has to start at the back, leaving him eligible for more position differential points depending on what league you’re playing in.
Then, there’s Ryan Blaney, third in his Duel and runner-up in two of the last five Daytona 500s. Three of his seven career wins have come in these pack races and he’s becoming a master on when to make his move late. My only hesitation is a nearly 50 percent DNF rate here, including just 14 laps into last year’s Daytona 500.
I’d argue Michael McDowell has been the most overlooked driver during Speedweeks. All McDowell’s done is win this race last year, a Cinderella story after inheriting the lead during the final lap. He’s posted the fastest practice speed twice, ran third in his Duel on Thursday, and enters this race relaxed and raring to repeat. You’d be foolish to leave the No. 34 car off your roster.
Chris Buescher moves up a notch to the middle tier considering his history of Daytona success. Three of his seven career top-5 finishes came at Daytona and that’s before his surprise victory in Thursday’s Duel. Track position comes at a hindrance for fantasy players (minimizing position differential) but Buescher might provide a ton of bonus points in a different way: leading laps. Think Matt DiBenedetto and his underdog near-upset performance with the now-defunct No. 95 Toyota back in 2019.
Noah Gragson is already playing with house money. The driver of the No. 62 Beard Motorsports car made the 500 one year after a heartbreaking DNQ after the former owner of this team, Mark Beard Sr., passed away. The Beard family decided to keep racing and now Gragson has nowhere to go but up, starting 39th with equipment that’s capable of a top-10 finish in this race.
Landon Cassill has had a quiet week as he makes his first Daytona 500 start in three years. Driving the No. 77 Spire Motorsports car, Cassill’s driving for a team that pulled his upset before, prevailing in a quirky rain delay with Justin Haley in 2019.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Denny Hamlin as the current favorite to win Daytona, posting +850 odds at press time. Chase Elliott is next up at +1000, followed by Kyle Larson at +1100. Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano sit at +1200, respectively, with Team Penske.
Putting all your money on a longshot? Michael McDowell is sitting at +6000 to repeat.
What I Think
I’m going out on a limb and putting my faith in Michael McDowell to do what most think is impossible this week: repeat as Daytona 500 champion. But it wouldn’t surprise me if 20, even 25 drivers on the starting grid win this race. It’s that wide open.
— 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.