Roger Diez: Youth is served at Daytona 500 | NevadaAppeal.com

Roger Diez: Youth is served at Daytona 500

Roger Diez

The 2018 Daytona 500 is in the history books, and what a race it was. The Fords were strong, as they usually are on restrictor plate tracks, but at the end it was Chevys in the first two spots and a Toyota third by inches. NASCAR’s youth movement served notice to the veterans as Austin Dillon’s No. 3 RCR Chevy was first across the line, 20 years after Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his only Daytona 500 with that number. And Bubba Wallace in the iconic No. 43 RPM Ford taking second place was nostalgic for fans who have been around for a while. Almost 31 years ago, at Atlanta in April, the No. 3 and No. 43 finished 1-2, with Earnhardt Sr. and Petty at the wheel.

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As noted above, the Fords were strong, with Ryan Blaney leading 118 of the 200 laps in his first race with Team Penske. His teammates ran up front as well, but three big wrecks sent a lot of drivers to the infield care center and their cars to the garage area. Among the contenders who wrecked out were the Fords of Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick; the Chevrolets of Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott; and the Toyotas of Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones. Denny Hamlin held up the honor of the Joe Gibbs Racing team with a third, while Kyle Busch was plagued by flat tires and wrecks and finished seven laps down in 25th.

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With stage points and the points for a top 10 finish in Thursday’s Can-Am Duels, the point standings don’t reflect the finishes in the 500. Blaney sits atop the standings with 58, Joey Logano is second with 50, Dillon and Wallace are tied for third at 47 each, and Paul Menard has 46 in fifth. With 39 points, Michael McDowell is sixth, Hamlin is seventh, and Ryan Newman, Chris Buescher, and Aric Almirola round out the top 10. Almirola thought he had the race won coming into the final turn, but when he tried to block Dillon’s run, Dillon didn’t lift. Almirola ended up in the wall while Dillon went onto victory. I have to say, Almirola was a gentleman about it in a post-race interview. It looked to me like “just one o’ them racin’ deals.” We’ll see if Almirola returns the favor later in the season.

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Now that the restrictor plate madness is over for a while, this weekend we’ll see which makes and which teams have done their homework for the regular season. All three of NASCAR’s touring divisions are in action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Both the Camping World Trucks and the Xfinity cars will qualify and race Saturday, with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race on Sunday. Today’s races will air on Fox Sports 1, with Sunday’s contest on Fox. The 36-car Cup field is the smallest in memory, after only 40 cars entered for the Daytona 500.

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So, who has the best handle on Atlanta? Past performance may not be a reliable indicator because the 2018 rules package has some significant differences from the past. Also, the Chevy teams are coming to grips with the new Camaro body, which has different aerodynamics than the old Chevy SS. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at the Atlanta track record and see who already knows the way to victory lane.

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Eight active Cup drivers have scored Atlanta wins. Jimmie Johnson leads the pack with five Atlanta victories, most recently in 2015 and 2016. Kasey Kahne has three wins, as does Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch has a pair of Atlanta victories, and 2017 winner Brad Keselowski has one, as do Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. All of those drivers could win again, but my money is on one of the young guns. I think Kyle Larson has an excellent shot, as do Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, and Bubba Wallace. And among the veterans, the Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano are a good bet. Almirola is motivated and has something to prove, Johnson can never be counted out, and the Busch Brothers are always a threat. But that’s why they run the race, and we’ll all know the result on Sunday afternoon.