Can the Great American Race start a great American turnaround for NASCAR?
Rule changes. Manufacturer switches. A new CEO. Some might say NASCAR is throwing everything but the kitchen sink at their product, hoping some of those changes will stick.
Welcome to the sport in 2019.
So much is different for NASCAR compared to this time a year ago. Six months after Brian France was arrested in Long Island for drug possession and a DUI, he’s no longer the sport’s CEO. The interim label was quietly removed off his uncle, Jim, in the offseason, putting him at the top of the hierarchy. There’s also a new president, with Steve Phelps assuming the role last fall and leading a course correction he helps will turn the sport around after years of declining ratings and attendance.
It’s not an easy task. Daytona Speedweeks has proven that as enthusiasm over rule changes and positivity surrounding NASCAR’s future has run into a buzzsaw of single-file competition. The exhibition Clash, held on Sunday, might have been the worst in its history. A 20-car pack ran mostly parade style and when they didn’t? Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson triggered a 17-car wreck the second he got out of line. Rain then ended the misery of a race some drivers claimed needs drastic changes to return to the schedule.
Then, there was Thursday’s Duel qualifying races, mostly muted aside from a last-lap pass by Joey Logano that vaulted him from fourth to first in the final lap. Contact with Johnson became a story again; this time, Kyle Busch was the culprit and the incident left him raging mad. But does it matter if the racing those other 59 laps failed to capture the fans’ imagination? And if the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reigning champ and Busch’s fiery personality don’t grab your attention….
To be fair, Sunday is the final restrictor plate race since they became a “temporary” solution back in the late 1980s. The new rules package NASCAR has installed doesn’t take effect until Atlanta next week. And TV ratings for the Clash were up compared to a year ago (the Duels suffered another decline). It’s way too early to judge whether a litany of adjustments, from inspection to inventive ways to spice up the racing are falling flat.
It’s clear NASCAR had to do something. But heading into the sport’s Super Bowl, on the heels of a disappointing NFL Super Bowl Speedweeks has served as a reminder of the sport’s many challenges.
Let’s see if Sunday starts changing the narrative, a year where NASCAR finally starts to buck the trend.
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Hendrick Motorsports
Some would say the new Ford Mustang belongs in this space. Indeed, the Duels were a showcase of Ford firepower, both qualifying races producing a 1-2-3 finish for their new car as manufacturer teamwork reigned supreme.
But behind them, Hendrick Motorsports quietly flashed some firepower. They’re sitting on the front row Sunday with William Byron and Alex Bowman. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson won the Clash and showcased an ability, along with Chase Elliott, to make passes alone within a single-file snake draft. That speed and handling combination could come in handy as the Cup cars have struggled to break in the inside line.
Who’s at the Back: Kyle Busch
Busch has his work cut out for him, starting 31st after getting wrecked by Johnson in Thursday’s Duel. The incident sent him off on an expletive-laced tirade about the seven-time champ and the handling of his Toyota after the incident. Busch even had a tough time playing Toyota-friendly before ultimately working with his damaged car to get Parker Kligerman into the Daytona 500, pushing him past Chevrolet’s Ryan Truex at the end of his Duel race.
Overall, Toyota is 0-for-3 on wins so far during Daytona Speedweeks. It looks like they’re a step behind Ford and Chevrolet in the draft. Busch, the face of the program, needs to lead the charge on Sunday for them to change that.
Jamie McMurray’s NASCAR career is coming to an end this weekend at Daytona. McMurray is running a tribute car for newly established Spire Motorsports that’s allowing him to run the No. 40. (The team was assigned No. 77). Sponsorship is coming from McDonald’s as the 42-year-old ends a Cup career that started by replacing an injured Sterling Marlin in 2002. He’s got seven victories, including the 2010 Daytona 500 and the 2010 Brickyard 400 but never finished higher than 11th in the final point standings.
Jeffrey Earnhardt has secured a limited Cup Series deal. He’ll partner with a new team, Xtreme Concepts Racing, to run both Talladega races later this year. The deal also expands to the Xfinity Series as sponsor iK9 is teaming up to fund their own program. The team will be a satellite operation of Joe Gibbs Racing when it runs, where Earnhardt is also running a limited Xfinity Series schedule.
Sam Bass died Saturday at the age of 57. The first official NASCAR artist, licensed in 1997, it was Bass who designed many of the legendary car schemes, logos, and art for the sport you see today. Known for his love of guitars, Bass designed schemes and memorabilia for everyone from Jeff Gordon to Tony Stewart, Charlotte Motor Speedway to Watkins Glen. Bass had been suffering from kidney disease.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for Angela Ruch in Friday night’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Daytona. It’s just the second time in NASCAR history a woman has finished top 10 in the Daytona Truck race. (Jennifer Jo Cobb in 2011).
Drivers out of 32 that finished the Truck Series race that same night, the fewest in the history of that division racing Daytona. A record-setting 11 caution flags knocked out 23 cars because of wrecks; the 10th-place finisher, Stewart Friesen, actually finished his night inside the garage.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy NASCAR Predictions)
• Top Tier
It’s hard to ignore the success of Joey Logano this Speedweeks. The 2018 Cup champion is brimming with confidence and made the best move of the Duels, catching Clint Bowyer by surprise and speeding by him to win despite leading only one lap.
But don’t ignore Kevin Harvick. The 2014 champ has had his share of tough luck at Daytona lately (five straight runs outside the top 10) so he’s due for a top-tier performance. Harvick also is part of the four-car Stewart-Haas Racing contingent that dominated the Talladega race last fall as part of a 1-2-3-4 juggernaut up front. If they can all get hooked up again… it might be nice to have them on your roster. (See: Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, and new addition Daniel Suarez).
• Middle Tier
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went through a miserable season with Roush Fenway Racing and is looking to turn his restrictor plate luck around. The 2017 July Daytona winner ran second in his Duel and has a competent, full-time teammate again in Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner. Stenhouse has been acting all Speedweeks like a man with something to prove and knows these superspeedways are the best chance for him to make a repeat playoff appearance – through a trip to Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch has a new team in Chip Ganassi Racing this season but doesn’t appear to have skipped a beat. He ran second to Johnson in the Clash race and was a respectable fifth in his Duel. He’s also driving a car that McMurray (albeit nine years ago) took to the win in this race. Busch, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner, may be racing his final full-time season and is primed to make the most of this opportunity.
• Lower Tier
There are a plethora of options here. I wrote on three in our full-fledged fantasy column but I’ll throw out more in a race where parity reigns supreme. I think Tyler Reddick from Richard Childress Racing can be a sneaky pick. He showed a lot of single-car speed and has little to lose, running a limited schedule in Cup. (He runs full-time for RCR in the NASCAR Xfinity Series). The defending champion in the Xfinity race from last year, he’s got plenty of success on this superspeedway and has last year’s Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon as a teammate. Don’t count him out.
I also think Matt DiBenedetto has been overlooked with Leavine Family Racing and the No. 95. DiBenedetto’s in his first race with this team, which switched to Toyota in the offseason and has a substantial amount of additional support from both their manufacturer and Joe Gibbs Racing. This car was fourth in the Daytona July race last year with Kasey Kahne and has enough speed to push forward in the draft.
Other longshot options include Brendan Gaughan from part-time Beard Motorsports (the final car to make the field), the Front Row Motorsports cars of David Ragan and Michael McDowell plus their new, third rookie teammate, Matt Tifft. Tifft sped on pit road multiple times in Thursday’s Duel but he should have those kinks worked out for the 500.
What Vegas Thinks (Vegas Odds)
CBS Sportsline has Roger Penske’s veteran driver, Brad Keselowski, with 8-1 odds to win the race. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano are next up at 9-1 and then a number of drivers sit at 12-1.
What I Think
I started Speedweeks thinking it could be Keselowski’s year. Instead? I’m making a last-minute switch. I just think the Stewart-Haas Racing cars still have the type of teamwork necessary to keep them as a blockade near the front. Harvick has been under the radar even with the Duel win and I think he’ll cash in for the second Daytona 500 victory of his career.