There may be no Dale Earnhardt Jr. but the 40-car field is packed with stories. They range from his nephew Jeffrey, driving an underdog ride to carry on the Earnhardt legacy to Danica Patrick, running in NASCAR one last time with new boyfriend Aaron Rodgers in tow on top of her pit box.
Fresh faces Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, both expected to take the next step this season, have responded with Can-Am Duel victories. Alex Bowman earned the pole in his first race post-Dale Jr. retirement. Darrell Wallace Jr., the first full-time African-American Cup Series driver in nearly 50 years, has qualified inside the top 10.
It’s these men NASCAR attempts to focus on as the sport tries to turn the page. 2018 has been billed as a new era, one that builds a foundation for the sport’s next generation of drivers and fans. For once, a decline is expected after losing iconic names like Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, and Patrick to retirement; the story is on how the sport moves on from here.
For the most part, a push towards the 18-34 crowd has gone well during Speedweeks. Long lines of fans have waited for autographs with Blaney, Wallace, Elliott and the retiring Patrick. Denny Hamlin popped up on the popular young Barstool Sports podcast "Pardon My Take." But once there, Hamlin made a bit of a misstep, claiming 70 percent of drivers are “on Adderall” in order to maintain their focus during the race.
Hamlin immediately downplayed the comments, claiming he was joking and reiterating the sport’s strong drug testing policy. But a harsh talking-to from NASCAR reminded him — and us — of the fine line between going younger and giving too much freedom. This sport, family-owned has given the impression for so long it rules with an iron fist. But giving away their future to a new generation, one dominated by social media, instant gratification, and political incorrectness means they’re going to need to loosen up.
Watching that battle unfold, exactly how much leeway NASCAR gives their new set of athletes will be fascinating to watch. In the meantime, the 2018 season may not have the “star power” up front you might be used to but believe me, there are stars in the making.
Look for a new one to emerge this Sunday in Victory Lane.
60th Daytona 500
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ford
The young guns may have impressed during the Can-Am Duels but the Ford of Brad Keselowski won Sunday’s first Speedweeks race: the exhibition Advanced Auto Parts Clash. Keselowski followed up a 2017 sweep for Ford that saw them go five-for-five (Clash included) on restrictor plate tracks.
Chevrolet and Toyota have showed more topline speed overall during the week. Ford also has the oldest chassis of all three manufacturers running; a new car is potentially coming in 2019. But what Ford lacks in chassis design they more than make up for in communication. Team Penske was masterful in working together and that trio, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could be an unstoppable force if they stick together Sunday.
Who’s at the Back: Jimmie Johnson
Sure, Johnson has had decent speed during Speedweeks but the No. 48 just keeps wrecking. He crashed out of the Clash for a seventh straight year and followed it up with an incident in Thursday’s Duel. Despite two Daytona 500 victories, it never feels like plate tracks are both Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus’ forte. Simply finishing the 500 in one piece would be a major accomplishment for a seven-time champion in rebuild mode.
BK Racing continues their drama as to whether they’ll complete a full season. Owner Ron Devine filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week but claims he’ll run all 36 races with driver Gray Gaulding running the No. 23 Toyota in the short term. But NASCAR has now signed onto a complicated bank case, protecting their legal interests and could fight to regain the rights to their charter. At stake is a guaranteed spot in the field each week after Devine’s financial troubles caught up to him.
GEICO signed a multi-year extension Friday through 2020 to serve as primary sponsor of the No. 13 Chevrolet and Germain Racing.Ty Dillon is in his second year with the team but failed to earn a single top-10 finish last year.
Among the celebrities visiting the Daytona 500 this year: Peyton Manning, Charlize Theron, Chipper Jones and Aaron Rodgers here to support new girlfriend Danica Patrick.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Daytona 500 starts by Kyle Busch without a win in the Great American Race. Only Kasey Kahne has run NASCAR’s Super Bowl more among active Cup drivers and failed to win.
Career laps led by Danica Patrick at Daytona, ironic since she’ll run the No. 7 in her final race. (A tribute to her start in the sport.)
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Team Penske has shown off their drafting skills over the course of Speedweeks. Young Ryan Blaney is looking to make an early impression in his first race with a new, third full-time effort. Keselowski is perhaps the sport’s best plate racer, battling with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for top honors. And Joey Logano, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner is no slouch.
Expect this trio to stick together, start to finish and be up front when it counts. They’ll attempt a repeat of the 2016 Daytona 500 up front, where Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota were nose-to-tail like glue.
Aric Almirola is with a new ride this year at Stewart-Haas Racing and motivated to make a difference in Danica Patrick’s old car, the No. 10 Ford. He’s got a strong Daytona history (fourth in the 500 last year) and could score you points in position differential leagues after a Duels wreck left him starting 37th.
Defending Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch has had a quiet, uneventful Speedweeks. He starts 11th this Sunday but is driving Ford equipment that has held up well in the draft. A repeat bid is unlikely but expect a top-5 or top-10 performance to start his season off right.
You can’t lose going with Patrick in her final Cup race. The red carpet has been rolled out for her, experienced Hendrick Motorsports support behind the scenes ensuring she’ll have a solid 500 effort. A top-10 finish isn’t out of the question although Patrick isn’t running for points; that’s a risk for your team in case she’s in a wreck. The one-race deal means they won’t go the extra mile to keep running.
David Gilliland, the 2007 Daytona 500 pole winner, is in a one-off effort for this year’s Daytona 500. The 41-year-old thinks it will be his last start in the race but he’s had some success here and led large portions of Friday night’s Truck Series main event. Don’t count him out if you don’t want to use up a start for one of the sport’s full-timers. Solid backup option: Brendan Gaughan, driving for a Beard Motorsports team that’s only running the four plate races in 2018.
What Vegas Thinks
CBS Sportsline odds had Brad Keselowski with 5/1 odds followed by Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin at 8/1.
What I Think
I think this Daytona 500 will belong to Team Penske. I’m going with Ryan Blaney taking the next step after coming so close during last year’s race. He’ll pass teammate Keselowski on the last lap and emerge on the national stage as a winner of NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
— 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.)