Posted: 9:47 am Friday, February 24th, 2017
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
NASCAR’s Great American Race will commence for the 59th time Sunday. As is the case every year, 40 teams roll into the start of the season with unchecked hope for not just the Daytona 500, but the entire season. Most of them think they have at least a chance to make the playoffs and win at least one race. Most will not. And Sunday’s 500 will not give a true look necessarily at who the season-long contenders are.
Restrictor plate racing bunches the entire pack and gives most entries in the field a chance to draft to the front. Those smaller teams are often out to lunch by the time they unload for practice at the fast, tricky 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway the next week. And the predictably unpredictable nature of plate racing is even more so in the short Clash and Duel races that have commenced the past few days. But there are still lessons to learn from those races that can predict some plot lines for Sunday.
First, Chase Elliott’s restrictor plate speed is no fluke. He now has back-to-back Daytona 500 poles and one at Talladega Superspeedway. Last year, he led some plate racing laps, but also wrecked some. And in middle of it all, the young driver had trouble getting people to work with him in the draft. He said as much after only mustering 7th at the finish of Sunday’s Advanced Auto Parts Clash – he just couldn’t get a run.
Thursday night’s first Can-Am Duel race started with Elliott on the pole, but he quickly fell back. At the first caution flag, Elliott radioed his crew, saying people again just would not work with him in the draft. But when the race resumed on lap 30, Elliott marched to the front in six laps, taking the lead from Brad Keselowski and holding the spot for the final 24 laps. With excellent help from spotter Eddie D’Hondt, Elliott jostled back and forth, blocking advances from both the high and the low lines, just as we have seen the top plate racers in recent years.
Elliott showed the field Thursday night that he is more than a featherless, fast dart in the draft. Trevor Bayne proved the same in 2011, when he worked well with Jeff Gordon in the draft at Daytona in a Duel race. Elliott will lead the field to green Sunday and is in a much better position than a year ago to stay there.
The other clear front runners seem to be the Team Penske cars and most of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. JGR’s Denny Hamlin, fresh off the announcement of a contract extension, won the 2nd Duel race of the night, passing race dominator Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming to the white flag. Hamlin sliced through the field after a penalty for driving through too many pit boxes and did so with zero teammates in the race. Hamlin also almost won the Clash Sunday and is the defending 500 winner. Teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth also have looked strong together, but Hamlin is a notch better.
Then there’s Team Penske, where both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski look fierce these Speedweeks. Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 and Sunday’s Clash and also looked decent Thursday night, before an unscheduled pit stop and some mistakes in the draft set him back. Keselowski led the most laps (28) in the same Duel race, but couldn’t muster a charge at the end to catch Elliott. He also said that there were some risks in that race that he just wasn’t willing to take. Keselowski won the July Daytona and May Talladega races last year and dominated the October Talladega race, before his engine overheated. Their young Wood Brothers satellite teammate, Ryan Blaney, was also very fast and aggressive in the second Duel race, but got bumped into the wall and out of contention.
NASCAR’s enforcement of the crash damage rules is intriguing. Teams have five minutes to fix their race cars on pit road and are not allowed to replace certain body panels. They also cannot have an extra person over the wall to help. Violation of any of these rules or a trip to the garage automatically ends the race. Or it should. Sunday saw Kyle Larson get black flagged and DNF’d for having too many men over the wall. But NASCAR did not impose the same penalty on rookie Erik Jones Thursday night and the No. 77 even got the free pass after. The rules seem subjective and that is a bad sign.
One more item to watch for Sunday is the racing itself. Drivers seemed to have their hands full in both the day and night races this Speedweeks. With the Daytona 500 in the height of the day, expect more of the same. The pack in both races was very aggressive, especially in the first race. With NASCAR’s new stage format debuting this weekend, expect that same aggression in waves – not only at the end – of the 200-lap event.
Top picks to win: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott
No one’s talking, but they should: Jamie McMurray – he was very strong and aggressive both Sunday and Thursday. The No. 1 Chevy has some serious speed and could vie strongly for a second Daytona 500 win Sunday.
A true dark horse: Why not David Ragan? The 31-year-old returns to Front Row Motorsports, this time in the No. 38 Ford, and was a front-runner in the Duel, before pitting with some slight crash damage. His only two career Cup wins have come in plate races, most recently with FRM at Talladega in 2013.