This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produces, its lots of practice laps with all the exhibition and qualifying races for the drivers to become comfortable with their cars. Once the drivers get acquainted with the new superspeedway package, we should see lots of three-wide, big pack racing in this season's Daytona 500. When we get down to the final 10 laps and crunch time, it will be interesting to see how the drivers mix it up looking for that perfect drafting partner. Pushing and bump drafting are out of the question, so we'll see some precarious drafting, side-drafting and mushrooming lanes of racing as drivers look for any open pavement they can find to get to
If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produces, its lots of practice laps with all the exhibition and qualifying races for the drivers to become comfortable with their cars. Once the drivers get acquainted with the new superspeedway package, we should see lots of three-wide, big pack racing in this season's Daytona 500. When we get down to the final 10 laps and crunch time, it will be interesting to see how the drivers mix it up looking for that perfect drafting partner. Pushing and bump drafting are out of the question, so we'll see some precarious drafting, side-drafting and mushrooming lanes of racing as drivers look for any open pavement they can find to get to the front. We'll see the pack racing, and unsettled cars that rattles nerves for 475 miles, then a 25-mile wild sprint to the finish which will have the top contenders climbing over one-another to get to the checkered flag first.
This will be our first race since the teams loaded up at Homestead last November, and crowned Jimmie Johnson the Monster Energy Cup Series champion for the record-tying seventh time. While super speedway racing isn't by itself completely indicative of what we can expect for the entire season, it does give us a good preview of who has the horsepower, handling and teamwork flowing right out of the gate. We expect most of the teams that ended the 2016 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short off-season and right into the Daytona 500. The teams of Joe Gibbs Racing would be a good example of this point. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin both put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November. Those two drivers combined for five Top-5 and nine Top-10 finishes over the last five races of last season. Not to be outdone, the duo of Stewart Haas Racing, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, grabbed four Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes over those final five events. We expect those teams to come running out of the blocks this February. In the opposite sense, some of the teams that struggled through the Chase for the Cup last fall have a lot to prove during Speedweeks. Drivers like Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their slumps are likely to continue well into 2017.
Before we dive into the driver picks, let's take a minute to look at the loop statistics for Daytona International Speedway. The loop stats are the numbers from NASCAR's electronic timing and scoring from past races. They can track virtually any statistic possible in auto racing. For the purpose of our examination we've chosen to look at average finish, quality passes, fastest laps, laps led and laps in the Top 15 and the driver rating derived from those. These stats are pretty indicative of the best performing drivers at a particular oval. From these and other numbers NASCAR derives the driver rating. From an overall performance standpoint, it's a great measure of track specific performance. Here are the loop stats for the last 24 races at Daytona International Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||13.8||3,372||97||317||2,824||94.1|
|Martin Truex Jr.||22.5||2,894||73||66||2,161||78.5|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||18.4||1,040||43||0||495||67.9|
In this race one year ago we crowned a first-time Daytona 500 winner. There were only 20 lead changes (3-season low) among 15 different drivers. Those were somewhat lower, but typical numbers when compared to the previous three Daytona 500s. When the dust settled we saw Denny Hamlin hold off Martin Truex Jr. by a bumper at the finish line to capture his first Daytona 500 victory and record one of the closet finishes in NASCAR history. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota led a dominating 95 laps that day and set the pace for a good part of the 500+ miles, so it was finally Hamlin's day on NASCAR's biggest stage. It ended up being one of the most thrilling races of the entire season. How can we top that in 2017? Given that the superspeedway package is somewhat different on the cars this year, we could see more lead changes and more leaders at the front. Pack racing should be back once again, and single-file riding should be at a minimum. It might be hard repeating that photo-finish from last year, but the entertainment factor could be just as high. As the above electronic scoring statistics show, we have a handful of drivers from many different stables that have a nose for the front at the Daytona oval. We'll outline the usual suspects at Daytona as well as a few drivers who may surprise on Sunday and give you the edge that you need to win your fantasy racing leagues for the Daytona 500.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Joey Logano – The No. 22 Penske Racing team served notice with its victory in last weekend's Advance Auto Parts Clash that it's going to be a force to reckon with in these big oval races for the foreseeable future. Logano hadn't been a big performer in superspeedway racing for much of his career, but that started to change in early 2015. His victory in that Daytona 500 served as a rallying point for Logano on these large ovals. When we take a look back at our last restrictor-plate race, it was this Penske Racing star that was taking the win in last October's Talladega race. This driver and team have the superspeedways dialed-in right now. A second career win in the Daytona 500 would seem very likely.
Denny Hamlin – Hamlin is our defending Daytona 500 champion. It took him several years to collect that prestigious win, but he's got that monkey off his back and he's ready for more. The No. 11 Toyota team has showed up with plenty of speed for Daytona Speedweeks, and the veteran driver displayed it in the Clash last Sunday afternoon. He led 48 of the 75 laps before succumbing on the last lap of this thrilling exhibition race. Hamlin has one victory and five Top-10 finishes in the last eight superspeedway events, including a pair of Top 5s at Talladega and Daytona last year. In terms of performance and finishes, that makes Hamlin second only to Joey Logano over the past two seasons at Daytona and Talladega.
Brad Keselowski – He doesn't boast the career numbers or finishing stats to compare to some other drivers at this level of the Daytona rankings, but the No. 2 Ford was powerful enough to get our attention in the Advance Auto Parts Clash this past Sunday afternoon. Keselowski sat on the pole and led 18 of the 75 laps before challenging Denny Hamlin for the win on the last lap. He would eventually finish sixth in that exhibition, but prove his ability to challenge for the win. The Penske Racing star won both the spring Talladega race and summer Daytona race in 2016, so this team is hitting top speed on these large ovals right now. Keselowski doesn't have a Daytona 500 trophy in his trophy case just yet, but it's simply a matter of time.
Kyle Busch – Over the last few years the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team unloads some of the fastest cars at restrictor-plate tracks of anyone in the series. That fact is undeniable. Busch's 364 laps led in the last 12 years at Daytona rank him second among active drivers. The finishes haven't typically followed though. However, that changed in a big way in 2016. Busch nabbed finishes of third-, second-, second- and 30th-place on the restrictor-plate tracks last season. He was in the running for the win up until the final seconds in three of the four superspeedway events. Busch is seeking his first Daytona 500 victory, and the 12-seaoson veteran will be hungry to break through in this Sunday afternoon's Great American Race.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Kevin Harvick – Harvick is one of the most successful restrictor-plate racing drivers currently in the series. With three-career victories on super speedways, including two Daytona wins, the 2014 Sprint Cup champion knows what it takes to capture the checkered flag at these huge ovals. Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500 and finished runner-up in the 2009 Great American Race, so he's quite comfortable with performing on this big stage. The driver of the No. 4 Ford boasts some of the best performance stats of anyone in NASCAR the last few seasons at Daytona International Speedway. His last nine superspeedway starts have netted six Top-10 finishes, and that's very good and consistent considering how high-stakes this form of racing can be most of the time.
Kurt Busch – One of the most consistent Daytona performers for the last 16 years has still yet to claim a Daytona 500 victory. Busch has had several near-brushes with victory lane at the World Center of Speed, but he's yet to etch his name into NASCAR immortality. The Stewart Haas Racing star boasts some of the best loop stats and finish stats of anyone at Daytona International Speedway. His 52-percent Top-10 rate at this oval ranks him among the elite in the Monster Energy Cup Series. The fact that Busch has accomplished these numbers over several different teams is a testament to his driving ability. He claimed three Top 10s in the four Daytona and Talladega races last season, and Sunday he should pick right up where he left off at Talladega last October.
Martin Truex Jr. – One of the less obvious names for fantasy racing players this weekend would be Truex Jr. The Furniture Row Racing star hasn't enjoyed the career-long success on the larger ovals like some other drivers. However, Truex is starting to turn things around in a big way at Daytona and Talladega. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota registered a thrilling runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin in last year's Daytona 500. That finish boosted his recent stretch to four Top 10s in the last eight restrictor-plate events. Truex sat on the pole position at Talladega last October and looked like a contender to win that event before an engine failure knocked him out of the running. This team and driver have the speed right now on these large ovals, so don't get too absorbed in career numbers at Daytona with this driver.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Earnhardt is making his big comeback from concussion in this Sunday's Daytona 500. He sat out the last half of last season with those post-concussion symptoms, and he can't wait to get back behind the wheel. Earnhardt's outside pole qualifying effort this past Sunday is a good symbol of that enthusiasm. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet's superspeedway resume speaks for itself. The veteran has 10-career victories between Talladega and Daytona, including two Daytona 500 wins. Earnhardt has led a staggering 1,500+ laps between these two ovals over his career, and he really is the gold standard at this point in time when it comes to superspeedway racing. Earnhardt may not have the appeal of a Logano, Hamlin or Keselowski at this point, but he carries tremendous upside with his fantasy racing selection.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Daytona who can provide a solid finish
Jimmie Johnson – The seven-time champion has a very up-and-down history with superspeedway racing and Daytona in particular. The loop stats bear a respectable 88.2 driver rating but that doesn't account for his inconsistency at the large oval. Johnson swept both Daytona races in 2013, so he's quite capable of dominating if he can avoid the accidents. Last year was a bit of a disaster on the large ovals, but we expect this legendary driver to rebound in 2017. Johnson claimed a pair of runner-up finishes and three Top 5s on the superspeedways in 2015, so that potential is certainly there. We're certain the No. 48 team learned a lot from their Clash outing this past Sunday.
Chase Elliott – Almost improbably the young Hendrick Motorsports driver has won the pole position for the Great American race for the second-straight season. While his Daytona 500 last year was a forgettable affair after the pole position, we believe this year will be different. Elliott now has a full season under his belt and he's ready to show what he can do. Great speed in his No. 24 Chevrolet makes a big difference. Elliott led 36-combined laps and registered fifth- and 12th-place finishes in the two Talladega events last season, so that type of potential is present. Daytona is a bit narrower and a bit trickier than Talladega, but we fully expect Elliott will show us that he's learned a lot since last season.
Kyle Larson – Larson has gradually improved his superspeedway racing over the last year. This was a weakness of his earlier in his Cup Series career, but he's showing to be a quick study of late. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver posted three Top 10s in the four restrictor-plate events of last season, and that included a seventh- and sixth-place finish in the two Daytona races. Larson rounded out the year on the big tracks nicely last October when he finished sixth at Talladega. The No. 42 team will carry the momentum of those good runs with them into the season-opener. The young driver was pretty competitive in last weekend's Clash before a late-race mistake by Martin Truex Jr. took him out of action. Larson will look to rebound well in the Daytona 500.
Clint Bowyer – Easily the happiest driver of Speedweeks to this point has to be Bowyer. Strong practices and a fast race car have the 11-season veteran grinning ear-to-ear around the garage area. Coming off the most difficult and leanest two-year stretch of his Cup racing career has Bowyer hungry. Taking over the No. 14 Ford of the just-retired Tony Stewart is just what the doctor ordered. Bowyer is one of the top performing drivers in the series when it comes to restrictor-plate racing. His two victories and 23 Top-10 finishes (52-percent rate) check in among some of the most successful superspeedway resumes currently in the sport. Bowyer knows how to race in the draft, and now that he is in a good team again he'll be eager to show it.
Austin Dillon – The young driver has a short Monster Energy Cup Series resume but lots of success at Daytona despite his young career. Dillon has one pole position, one Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in just seven starts at Daytona International Speedway. For good measure, the RCR driver swept the Top 10 in all four races between Daytona and Talladega last season. Dillon is carrying on the Richard Childress Racing tradition of great performance on superspeedways that drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer set before him. The No. 3 Chevrolet team appears to be very much on their game on these big ovals. RCR has prided themselves on their restrictor-plate racing program for years, so Dillon has homerun potential in this race.
Daniel Suarez – If you're looking for a fantasy racing wild card that could turn up big this Sunday afternoon, you could do far worse than Suarez. This will be the rookie driver's first Monster Energy Cup Series race and first Daytona 500. After the lump clears from the throat and the nerves settle down, the young driver should realize he's racing a car from one of the fastest stables in the field, Joe Gibbs Racing. As the JGR foursome showed us in the Clash last weekend, they can work together and monopolize the front of the field. Suarez will benefit greatly from this teamwork and good equipment. Suarez grabbed eighth- and seventh-place finishes in Xfinity Series starts at Daytona and Talladega last year, so he's been honing his superspeedway skills for this debut at NASCAR's top level.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – The Roush Fenway Racing driver is looking to continue the success he's had over his career on the superspeedway ovals. Stenhouse has scored Top-10 finishes in six of 16 starts between Daytona and Talladega. When not finishing inside the Top 10, the driver of the No. 17 Ford has generally been a Top-15 or Top-20 finisher on these ovals, and he's never posted a DNF in these very risky and high-stakes races. His very good average finish of 15.5 on these ovals is proof of that fact. Stenhouse has brought a good car to Daytona this week. He posted the 13th-best time of qualifying this past Sunday afternoon and should show up well in the Can-Am Duel. The resume is good, and Stenhouse has started the week off very well.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Danica Patrick – Despite scoring a Top-5 finish in last Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash, we have to suggest staying away from the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing team. Patrick has two Top-10 finishes in nine-career starts at Daytona International Speedway, but there's also a whole lot of heartache to go along with those two Top 10s. She also has three DNF's at DIS, two in just her last three starts at the historic oval. That's dragged Patrick's average finish down to 25.1. Superspeedway racing in general has been tough for her throughout her career. Patrick's two Daytona Top 10s is offset by five DNF's and a career-average finish of 25.0 between Talladega and Daytona. This high stakes racing is just not Patrick's strong suit.
Kasey Kahne – The Hendrick Motorsports star's success on the restrictor-plate tracks over the years has been sporadic at best. Kahne has a lowly 31-percent Top-10 rate at Daytona and an even lower 19-percent rate at Talladega. So it's not to say he doesn't have Top-10 potential only that his skill and luck haven't added up to much success on these ovals over the years. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet's recent Daytona sampling shows only one Top 10 in his last eight trips to Daytona Beach. Generally speaking, his career performance in the Daytona night race held each July is better than his Daytona 500 outings. His qualifying effort last Sunday shows that the No. 5 team has a good car, but Kahne's history shows that he's a risky fantasy racing play at best.
Matt Kenseth – Kenseth is the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500 winner and a regular strong performer at this historic 2.5-mile superspeedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star hopes to grab that third Daytona 500 trophy this weekend. However, the last two seasons of racing on the superspeedways have been improbably poor for the driver of the No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth has no Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts between Talladega and Daytona, and despite 84 laps led over those events. That demonstrates that it's not a problem with speed, but knowing when to move and which line to get in at crunch time. That has led to a number of finishes outside the Top 20 over the last two years on these ovals. JGR has great cars again for this Daytona 500, but Kenseth is likely the least fantasy-friendly of the four Gibbs drivers this weekend due to his current trends.
Jamie McMurray – The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is a two-time Daytona winner, including the 2010 Daytona 500. McMurray certainly knows his way around this large oval. However, with the wins has come his fair share of struggles over the years as well. With just five Top 10s in 28-career starts at DIS, McMurray is hitting an 18-percent Top-10 rate at this oval. That's not very good. The veteran driver's nine DNF's far overshadow those five Top-10 finishes. It's the primary driver in his 23.5 average finish at Daytona. The last two seasons in particular on the superspeedways have been struggle-filled for the No. 1 Chevrolet team. McMurray has only one Top 10 in his last eight starts between Daytona and Talladega. It's best to look to more consistent drivers to help your fantasy race team this weekend.