Give round one of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series to the sport’s young, up-and-coming talent. Austin Dillon’s surprise Daytona 500 victory sparked a wave of four twenty-something phenoms finishing inside the top five. Add in a last-lap bump-and-run on Aric Almirola and the sport was lit afire with water cooler talk this week.
Only Denny Hamlin (third) broke the streak but he made up for it with a controversial Pardon My Take appearance on Barstool Sports. Instantly, a whole new legion of young millennials were introduced to a racing series getting taken over by, well, people that are just like them.
Did the ratings follow suit? Not for week one. A 5.3 national Nielsen rating is the lowest since the race first got televised flag-to-flag in 1979. But you don’t fix Rome in a day and it’ll take time for these young drivers to gain allegiances. An audience on par with the last time this race was run during the Winter Olympics (2014) gives hope the sport can minimize the damage caused by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement.
Whether the youth movement is a one-week wonder is one of the biggest questions of Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Veterans have fought back on this 1.5-mile oval with 32-year-old Kyle Busch earning the pole. Behind him sits 40-year-old Ryan Newman and 42-year-old Kevin Harvick. Busch, of course, was highly critical of NASCAR’s focus towards younger drivers this offseason and caused some silencing the best way he knows how: on the racetrack.
Further back in the field sit Dillon (25th), Daytona runner-up Bubba Wallace (19th) and hometown boy Chase Elliott (27th). Can they work their way through traffic and emerge at the front of the pack? This intermediate oval gives drivers a chance to move through traffic but also offers limited chances for pit strategy. Just four cautions happened last year aside from stage breaks and none of them came until after stage two.
That means a driver handling poorly will fall one, two, maybe three laps down here in a hurry. We’ll see if the young talent has what it takes to slice through traffic.
59th Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500
Time: 1:15 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Atlanta Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ryan Blaney
Austin Dillon may have won the race on Sunday but Blaney may be the one who wins the war. Leading a race-high 118 laps, his No. 12 Team Penske Ford was easily the best of all the new driver/team combinations at Daytona. Atlanta is a different beast, revealing his manufacturer’s main weakness (aerodynamics) against the newer Chevy and Toyota chassis.
But if there’s a Ford team in position to overcome it, it’s Penske’s multi-car outfit and Blaney looks primed to have a breakout year.
Who’s at the Back: Hendrick Motorsports
Just about anything that could go wrong did for Hendrick at Daytona. A pole-winning run from Alex Bowman was wasted after his car was badly damaged in the race’s final wreck. It would never had happened if rookie William Byron hadn’t spun out on his own with ten laps left; that set up the chaotic Daytona finish and Dillon’s rise to prominence.
But at least that duo finished the race. Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson weren’t so lucky, both wrecking out by lap 108 to give HMS four junkyard cars and zero top-15 results. So far, Atlanta hasn’t fared much better with none of their four Chevys qualifying better than 18th for Sunday’s 500-miler.
Aric Almirola has no hard feelings about how Sunday’s Daytona 500 ended. Almirola made it clear this week he was heartbroken but also had no bitterness about how he lost the sport’s biggest race to Austin Dillon. “It was the last lap and we’re all trying to win the Daytona 500,” he told reporters. “It’s the biggest race of the year and it’s a career-changing race.”
Was Almirola out of line? Watch the replay for yourselves and see.
Martin Truex Jr. lost his car chief this weekend when the No. 78 car failed pre-race qualifying inspection three times. It’s part of NASCAR’s new rules to tighten up the inspection process and stiffen race weekend penalties for those teams who can’t get it right. The defending champ will have to start Sunday’s Atlanta race 35th.
The BK Racing bankruptcy drama continues to unravel. The No. 23 team is fighting to keep its charter but asked the court this week to use cash coming in to stay in business. Without the $450,000 earned in Sunday’s Daytona 500, the team claims it could be forced to cease race operations. Second-year driver Gray Gaulding isn’t blinking for the time being; he insists the team will run a full season as a driver/team combination.
Austin Dillon put his Daytona 500 win behind him — permanently — by having a tattoo inscribed on his butt. Dillon and some crewmembers got the tattoo of the 500 logo after Sunday night celebrations at the track. Dillon also claims the word “champ” is on his but it’s not in, let’s call it a G-rated spot on his body.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lap led by Austin Dillon in winning the 2018 Daytona 500. It’s the second straight year the race winner (Kurt Busch in 2017) led only the white-flag lap of the race.
Daytona 500 victories for Richard Childress with the No. 3 car: Dillon in 2018 and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1998.
Grand total of laps led in Dillon’s two career Cup Series victories.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick has come oh-so-close at Atlanta as of late. Running second, sixth, and ninth the last three years, Harvick has led more than 500 laps but hasn’t been able to close the deal. Expect more of the same this Sunday as a third-place starting spot shows this veteran hasn’t missed a beat.
Martin Truex Jr. may be starting 35th but don’t count out the defending champ. The best racer on intermediate tracks last season also has three straight top-10 finishes at Atlanta. The No. 78 offers position differential points through DraftKings and should make Sunday fun to watch while fighting to the front.
Ryan Newman now has five top-10 qualifying runs at Atlanta with Richard Childress Racing. The problem has been turning those into race-contending performances. Newman has been seventh, 10th, 24th, and 35th in a steady downward spiral here with the No. 31 Chevrolet.
But 2018 offers a fresh start and RCR has charged out of the gates strong with Dillon’s 500 victory. Even a top-10 finish would be a good performance for Newman out of your roster.
Jamie McMurray quietly has three top-12 finishes in his last five Atlanta starts. Despite never leading a lap at this track, the No. 1 does well feeding off the intermediate setups of Kyle Larson. Expect him to rebound from a weak Daytona and sail back inside the top 10.
Cole Whitt didn’t even race in the Daytona 500 last week. He’s scaling back to a part-time schedule with TriStar Motorsports but quietly performed well in this race last year (20th). We always see a small team stay ahead of the curve with 2018 rules so it’s worth taking a flyer to see if Whitt has a repeat performance.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson has 11/2 odds, tied with Kevin Harvick atop a crowded Vegas pack. Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, and Martin Truex Jr. lead those in a tight pack behind.
What I Think
Expect the veterans to claw back to the front this weekend. After being tortured the last few years, Kevin Harvick dominates and works his way back to Victory Lane at this track for the first time since 2001. It’s the second time in two weeks the ghost of Dale Earnhardt will connect itself back to the Cup Series.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)