So much change has happened during a crazy NASCAR offseason it’s easy to forget about the part that puts fans in the stands every Sunday: the competition itself. Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota have each flexed their muscle so far during a busier-than-normal Speedweeks, giving hope that 2017 may produce more parity than ever in a sport where first through 40th place can be separated by less than a second on the lap chart.
The Fords appear reinvigorated, led by the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing whose newest driver, Clint Bowyer, was runner-up in his qualifying Duel. Heck, even Danica Patrick has made some noise, finishing fourth in Sunday’s Clash and remaining competitive despite questions about her future sponsorship. Add in the typical might of Team Penske (Joey Logano won the Clash) and it would be no surprise to see your Daytona 500 winner come from here.
But what about Toyota? They were 1-2-3-4 for much of Sunday’s Clash and boast a defending champion, Denny Hamlin, who snookered the best of the best in Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of Thursday night’s qualifying Duel. If JGR can keep together as a team, bringing rookie Daniel Suarez up to speed by Sunday they appear to have the most horsepower of anyone in the field.
Or does that honor belong to Hendrick Motorsports? Chevrolet, after a rough start in the Clash came back with a vengeance after Chase Elliott and Earnhardt swept the front row for Sunday’s race. Even Jamie McMurray, a plate race specialist and the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, was flexing some muscle along with teammate Kyle Larson. Add in Austin Dillon, whose push of Hamlin was the key to victory in the second Duel race and there’s a long list of contenders on their side.
When you add all that up, what you get is a field that’s wide open heading to a Cup race on Sunday without Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, and Greg Biffle in the field. The last time one of the five wasn’t a part of this circus? 1992.
So a clear changing of the guard is at hand, and as a result we’ve got the most unpredictable Daytona 500 in years. Any one of 20 faces could wind up in Victory Lane without so much as a raised eyebrow from the fan base. For a sport that’s in clear rebuild mode, armed with a new title sponsor and desperate to turn declining ratings around such parity is a great place to start.
59th Daytona 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
The last time Chase’s father, Bill, won the Daytona 500 in 1987 this 21-year-old wasn’t even born. But the son is trying to follow in the family’s footsteps, winning his second straight pole for “The Great American Race” and then deftly maneuvering through traffic to take Thursday’s qualifying Duel. You know who else won a Duel, at 21 years old driving the No. 24 car? A guy named Jeff Gordon. Wonder how his career turned out...
Who’s at the Back: Martin Truex Jr.
Furniture Row Racing, in general has struggled since adding rookie Erik Jones as a second team in the offseason. But while Jones can be expected to hit bumps in the road being a young rookie on the circuit, it’s Truex who’s coming off a career year. He struggled during the Clash, never really showing the speed of the other Toyotas and did the same in his Duel just one year after finishing second in the Daytona 500. One bad race does not a bad season make but Truex’s struggles could be worth watching. Expansion, especially for a team like FRR that has run as a single-car operation for so long can be tricky to navigate.
Denny Hamlin announced a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing, along with sponsor FedEx that will keep him in the No. 11 Toyota for years to come. The signing ends speculation the 29-time Cup winner would be moved elsewhere to make room for young Erik Jones come 2018. Gibbs, the only owner Hamlin had ever driven for since moving up to Cup full-time in 2006, will now focus on the future of Matt Kenseth as all his other drivers are signed long-term.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted in an interview this week at Daytona Media Day that if he won this season’s championship, he’d consider retirement. “It’d be hard not to call it a career,” he said, admitting that’s the one goal on his racing bucket list that has not been checked off. Earnhardt, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires at the end of the season, has put off extension talks for the next couple of months as he readjusts to full-time driving.
Danica Patrick claimed this week she’s had multiple concussions while driving a race car and that another one would give her pause as to continuing her driving career. If anything, the comments perhaps added further insight to Carl Edwards stepping away from the sport just months after falling just short of a championship.
“I think that we’d like to sweep it all under the rug,” she told ESPN. “But it’s our life. I love what I do but I love lots of other things and I also love life.”
Rules, rules, rules. NASCAR made so many changes this offseason it’s impossible to go through here but the one making headlines this week is the five-minute clock for repairing race cars. Once you get in a wreck at Daytona, you have five minutes to repair the car on pit road, then reach minimum speed after the green flag otherwise you’re headed to the garage area. The move is designed to cut down on the number of wounded race cars running around for points while becoming roadblocks and potential trash depositors on the track.
Joey Logano announced Friday morning he has signed an extension with Team Penske and primary sponsor Shell/Pennzoil that runs at least through the 2022 season. Logano, 26, has been a contender for the season title in each of the last three years since NASCAR switched to its current playoff format. Since joining Penske, he’s won 15 of 17 career races, made the sport’s final four at Homestead twice and captured the 2015 Daytona 500.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Age of the youngest Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne in 2011. Chase Elliott would be a winner at 21 if he accomplishes the feat Sunday.
Laps led by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his return to the sport Thursday night. Earnhardt led most of his Duel before getting passed on the outside by Hamlin heading to the white flag.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing. Sure, they struggled to work together in the first Duel Thursday evening but Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are arguably the best trio of teammates in the sport today. If they can work together, getting underdog rookie Daniel Suarez in the mix, they’ll form a 1-2-3-4 conga line Sunday that’s going to be difficult to beat. It’s how Hamlin won the 2016 Daytona 500 and they could easily rinse and repeat.
Guess who had the highest finish in all restrictor plate races last year? That would be none other than Austin Dillon, posting four top-10 finishes at Daytona and Talladega in four starts. The 2013 Daytona 500 pole winner has been stout in practice this week, worked well with others in the Duels and could be your dark horse for the 500. Either way, his consistency makes it a good bet the No. 3 car will be around at the finish.
The plate races provide opportunities for a number of underdogs and that’s where we’ll spend our time this week. Picking wisely here allows you to save picks for other drivers later in the season and earning a rare top-10 finish for guys like Michael McDowell, Landon Cassill, and other small-team performers you’d rarely have a chance to use otherwise.
Cassill, along with David Ragan, seems to be the best positioned for success Sunday. Front Row Motorsports has won at these plate races before and it’s clear their Fords have the speed to compete in the draft. The question is whether you can trust Ragan’s aggression. The No. 38 car caused an incident Thursday night in the second Duel that effectively ended the night for Ryan Blaney and Jimmie Johnson. Will he make a mistake in the 500 that will cost both himself and others?
What Vegas Thinks
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the way for the Daytona 500 with 5/1 odds, followed closely by Brad Keselowski at 7/1 according to vegasinsider.com. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Martin Truex Jr. are next up at 10/1 despite none of them having the strongest Speedweeks.
What I Think
Austin Dillon, who took a big step forward last year making the Chase, is poised to shine as Richard Childress Racing’s top dog this season. What better way to start than by winning your first Daytona 500 and Cup Series race? The sport’s Super Bowl will start with a surprise winner as hopefully this theme of parity will catch on.
— 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.