Roger Diez: Daytona, the weekend we’ve been waiting for
This is the weekend NASCAR fans have been waiting for all winter. Speedweeks is in full swing, culminating with the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Saturday will feature the Xfinity series qualifying and season opener, the PowerShares QQQ 300. Between Xfinity practice and qualifying, the final practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup cars will take place. All three events will air on Fox Sports 1.
The No. 88 Hendrick Racing Chevy Camaro will lead the Daytona 500 field to the green flag, with young Alex Bowman at the wheel. Denny Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx Toyota will be alongside at the start. Daytona 500 qualifying is unique in that only those two spots were locked in during last Sunday’s qualifying. The rest of the field was set by the results of the two Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-mile races on Thursday. Winners of their respective Duel races, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott, will start on the second row on Sunday. Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick will take the green flag from row three, with Darrell “Bubba” Wallace and Erik Jones on row four. Unfortunately, due to wrecks that forced teams to use backup cars, eight drivers will start at the rear of the field. They are Brad Keslowski, Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, William Byron, Matt DiBenedetto, and David Gilliland. Keslowski won the Clash last Sunday after starting at the back of the field, so keep a close eye on him as well as on Johnson and Larson.
Daytona is one of two tracks where NASCAR mandates restrictor plates to limit horsepower and therefore speed. Bowman’s single car qualifying speed was more than 195 mph, but during the race the cars will turn laps exceeding 200 mph due to the effect of the draft. The draft also means big packs of cars in close proximity, which in turn means the likelihood of big accidents. This is particularly true of the final laps of a race, as evidenced in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, Saturday’s ARCA race, and Can Am Duel No. 1. It’s not so much a question of if the “big one” will occur, but when.
So who’s likely to be the next Daytona 500 champion? In all probability, Sunday’s race winner will come from one of three teams that have shown impressive speed so far during Speedweeks, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Team Penske. Hendrick Motorsports is fielding the new Chevrolet ZL1 Camaro, which so far has been fast in practice and qualifying as evidenced by Bowman’s pole run. He’s joined by seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Xfinity champions Chase Elliott and William Byron (a rookie). The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are coming off a stellar season with their well-developed Toyota Camrys, and Denny Hamlin’s front row start bodes well for the team. Former Cup champion Kyle Busch, sophomore Cup competitor Daniel Suarez, and rookie Erik Jones round out the Gibbs quartet. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski won the Clash, and teammates Joey Logano and newcomer Ryan Blaney almost made it a 1-2-3 finish, but for a last lap melee. The Fords, like the Toyotas, are fast in the draft. Besides those three, Stewart-Haas Racing’s second year with Ford should prove successful. Led by Cup Champion Kevin Harvick and Cup champion and defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, the team includes veterans Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola. Finally, Ganassi Racing’s two-car team of Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray is coming off their most successful Cup season yet, and either of those drivers could end up in victory lane on Sunday. Of course, because it’s a restrictor plate race, anybody could win depending on who can survive the anticipated big wrecks.
The NHRA’s Lucas Oil Winternationals at Pomona last weekend saw Doug Kalitta take the win in Top Fuel, Matt Hagan secure the Funny Car victory, and Bo Butner take top honors in Pro Stock. Defending Top Fuel champion Brittany Force was hospitalized following a brutal crash during the first round of eliminations but has been released and is recuperating at home.