This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.
If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produces, it's 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 aero 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
If there's one thing that Speedweeks at Daytona produces, it's 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 aero 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 Martin Truex Jr. the Monster Energy Cup Series champion for the first 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 2017 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 four Top-5 and eight 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 five Top-5 and seven 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 Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Daniel Suarez and Clint Bowyer had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their season-ending slumps are likely to continue well into 2018.
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 26 races at Daytona International Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Martin Truex Jr.||22.6||3,030||82||68||2,256||77.1|
|Bubba Wallace Jr.||15.0||146||3||0||69||75.1|
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||18.0||1,270||52||17||620||71.2|
In this race one year ago we crowned a first-time Daytona 500 winner, Kurt Busch. There were 37 lead changes (3-season high) among 18 different drivers. Those were somewhat higher, but typical numbers when compared to the previous three Daytona 500s. When the dust settled we saw Busch hold off Ryan Blaney by a quarter of a second at the finish line to capture his first Daytona 500 victory and record yet another exciting finish in Daytona history. The driver of the No. 41 Ford only led that final lap thanks to the quickly changing fortunes of this wild race, so it was finally Busch'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 2018? Given the addition of Chevrolet's new (and better) Camaro, we could see more lead changes and more leaders at the front with the added parity among manufacturers. Pack racing should return once again, and single-file riding should be at a minimum. It might be hard repeating that dramatic 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
Brad Keselowski - With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski is now considered the current king of restrictor-plate racing. The Penske Racing star has six combined victories between Daytona and Talladega, but he's never won the Great American Race. That's one box he'd love to check off to begin the 2018 season. Without his arch rival in superspeedway racing, Earnhardt Jr., around to challenge him, Keselowski has a decent chance of pulling off the big win. The driver of the No. 2 Ford won our last superspeedway race at Talladega last October, and he won Sunday's exhibition race, the Clash, at Daytona. The No. 2 team has the momentum and the speed to win.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - The Roush Fenway Racing driver has become the hot hand on these big ovals as his last season attests. The No. 17 Ford was large and in charge when we visited the restrictor-plate race tracks. Stenhouse nabbed a spring victory at Talladega in convincing fashion, beating Kyle Busch. Then he grabbed a follow-up victory at Daytona during the summer. The veteran driver's Top-10 percentages at these two ovals is far better than any of the other tracks on the circuit, with maybe the exception of Bristol. It shows that Stenhouse's success at racing in the draft is not by accident, and there's some real talent and understanding of this unique racing here. A Daytona 500 victory would be a career highlight for Stenhouse, although he faces a tough field of competition at the top.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin won the 2016 Daytona 500 in thrilling fashion over Martin Truex Jr. 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 in recent years. Hamlin has won two of his last four Duel races and he's won two of his last four Clash exhibition races at Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led close to 400 laps for his career at Daytona International Speedway, and it's really a wonder that he doesn't have more than just the one Daytona 500 win. He's been one of the more dominant drivers in recent outings at the historic Florida oval with one win and five Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts.
Joey Logano - As bad as last season was for the No. 22 Penske Racing team, Logano still managed to squeeze some juice out of the lemon at the restrictor-plate race tracks. He earned a strong sixth-place finish in last season's Daytona 500 and he ended the year with 59 laps led and a strong fourth-place showing at Talladega. That level of performance ties in nicely with his career record on the big ovals. Logano is the 2015 Daytona 500 winner and he's a three-time victor between the ovals of Talladega and Daytona. Some fantasy racing players might stay away from Logano in weekly lineup leagues for the Daytona 500 due to that poor season in 2017, but we say don't let that drive your thinking with this selection.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Chase Elliott - We were left with several key takeaways from Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash. The one thing that stood out was how strong Elliott's No. 9 Chevrolet was in that 75-lap exhibition race. We expect him to carry that same speed into this weekend's Great American race. Elliott is a two-time Daytona 500 pole winner, and he's led 46-combined laps in his last four starts at this historic oval. The finishes have not followed that speed, but he now has the experience in the draft to start logging great finishes with this strong race team. He sat on the outside pole and led 26 laps at Talladega last October, and he led 17 laps in the early going of Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash. Elliott is a driver to watch very closely in this Daytona 500.
Alex Bowman - We have very little in the way of Cup data to go on, but we do know this. Bowman is piloting the same No. 88 Chevrolet team that Dale Earnhardt Jr. used for years to dominate the superspeedway circuit. They showed that prowess in this past Sunday's pole qualifying as Bowman really just blew away the field in capturing the pole. This will be his fourth-career start at Daytona, and it bears stating that his three previous starts came with much lesser teams. As expected those results were mixed at best. This 24-year-old driver is ready to step up and take advantage of this tremendous opportunity that Rick Hendrick has given him. We would not be surprised at all to see the No. 88 Chevrolet racing for the win on the white flag lap this Sunday afternoon.
Kurt Busch - After years of consistency racing on the superspeedways, Busch was finally rewarded last year with his first Daytona 500 victory. It was a long time in the making, but in no way diminishes his excellence on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega. In just the last two seasons alone the veteran SHR driver has racked up five Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts between these two huge ovals. That places Busch among the elite performers in the series in superspeedway racing. He showed some of that skill in this past Sunday's Clash. When crunch time rolled around, the No. 41 Ford came out of nowhere to the front and grabbed an impressive third-place finish. It's that's skill, experience and knowledge you get with each start Busch makes at Daytona.
Clint Bowyer - While last season didn't measure up in many respects, Bowyer and his No. 14 Ford team did produce on the restrictor-plate race tracks. The veteran driver posted a brilliant runner-up finish last July at Daytona, and that brings his recent Daytona record to five Top 10s in his last seven starts at the historic Florida oval. Considering that he accomplished all those Top 10s across three different teams during the span, makes the accomplishment even more impressive. Bowyer has always been a strong hand on the big ovals. With two-career Talladega victories, and 24-combined Top-10 finishes between Daytona and Talladega, you can't buy that kind of racing experience. Some fantasy racing players will skip over Bowyer in their lineups this weekend, so take that opportunity to seize on some good results that not everyone will roster.
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 87.6 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. The reason for our optimism this time around is chiefly because of the introduction of the new Chevy Camaro. Johnson and the No. 48 team took to the new car like a duck to water in the Clash and qualifying last weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports star posted the third fastest qualifying lap and just missed the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500. His 44-percent Daytona Top-10 rate is actually a pretty good mark, and if he can avoid the accidents, he should push the Top 10 by day's end.
Kyle Larson - While Larson will be more of a contenders list driver for most of the season, and especially on intermediate ovals, he's more of a sleeper for the superspeedway races. His two-career Top-10 finishes at Daytona in eight starts checks in at an average 25-percent rate. That's not to say the Chip Ganassi Racing star doesn't possess speed on these big ovals, he just comes back to the pack a bit. Larson had some good practices at Daytona last weekend, and we couldn't help but be intrigued by the possibility of him having a good car for the Great American Race. Decisions of when to go and when not to in the draft have always plagued Larson. That's been his weakness in this style of racing. With four full seasons of Cup action now under his belt, we expect those past lessons learned to start to pay off.
Ryan Blaney - One of the wild cards this Sunday afternoon will be Blaney and his new Penske Racing team. The young talent makes the jump this season from Wood Brothers Racing and everything he accomplished there the last few years into a new No. 12 Ford for Roger Penske. Considering how well he raced in the No. 21 Ford, it's still difficult to say, but this is a team upgrade. We should see the corresponding results on the track. Not only that, but this is the current camp setting the pace on these superspeedways. Blaney has done little to distinguish himself in this style of racing (three Top 10s in 12-career starts between Daytona and Talladega), but we believe we'll see a change this Sunday. Blaney and his teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano worked extremely well together in the Clash this past Sunday, and that could lead to big things in the Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon - Dillon has done a great job in his brief Monster Energy Cup Series career at restrictor-plate racing. Daytona in particular has been very kind to the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. He has five Top-10 finishes in nine-career starts at this iconic oval. That works out to a very good 56-percent rate. That type of performance in this style of racing doesn't happen by accident. Obviously, good cars help quite a bit, but Dillon has also displayed the knowledge of racing in the draft and done it well. The Richard Childress Racing driver may not be one of the guys at the front of the pack all afternoon in the Daytona 500, but you can bet that when we get under 10 laps to go he'll pick the right drafting partner and push his way out of nowhere toward the front.
Aric Almirola - One of the most consistent performers of the last couple seasons on the big ovals has been Almirola. We expect that skill he's displayed will translate from his old No. 43 team and into his new ride at Stewart Haas Racing. It should be an upgrade in team and an upgrade in car. Almirola has grabbed three Top-5, four Top-10 and six Top-15 finishes on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega the last two seasons. The veteran driver has displayed the knack for avoiding the big one, and staying on the lead lap running at the end of these races. That reason alone is fantasy racing gold each time we visit Daytona. Sure, Almirola isn't one of the big stars in the Cup Series, but he's vastly underrated each time we go restrictor-plate racing.
David Ragan - Although he races for small race teams now, he's maintained great stats over the years on superspeedway ovals. Ragan is a one-time winner at Daytona, and he's a one-time winner on the similar oval in Talladega. His 14-combined Top-10 finishes on both these tracks are by far the most he's enjoyed on any other style of oval on the circuit. This veteran driver clearly possesses the knowledge and the skill to pilot his race cars to good finishes at these tracks. Last season alone Ragan grabbed three Top-10 finishes between these two tracks with this same race team. You can guarantee that the No. 38 Ford team's superspeedway notebook will come in handy this weekend.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
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 382 career laps led at Daytona rank him third among active drivers. The finishes haven't typically followed though. It seems those fast cars don't often equal great or even good finishes for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. Busch's lone victory at Daytona came in the summer race of 2008, and his eight Top 10s in 25 starts works out to a lowly 32-percent rate. Busch led 18 laps in last season's Great American race, but wound up in major crash on lap 103 and finished 38th. That's often times been more his Daytona story than tales of victories or success.
Martin Truex Jr. - As difficult as it may be to believe, the reigning NASCAR champion is a risky fantasy racing play this weekend at Daytona. At the end of the day all drivers are risky fantasy racing plays in this high stakes form of racing, but superspeedway racing is clearly not one of Truex's strong suits. Since 2005 the veteran driver has made 25 starts at Daytona International Speedway, and only three of those starts have materialized into Top-10 finishes. In all that time he's combined to lead just 68 laps at this historic oval. Truex enters this Daytona 500 mired in a three-race Daytona Top-10 drought. In case you're wondering his Talladega record is only marginally better than Daytona. His average finish there is 21.1. In weekly lineup leagues it would be best to play it safe and save this start for Truex, and later redeploy him on the much friendlier intermediate oval of Atlanta.
Danica Patrick - This will be Patrick's last NASCAR and last Daytona 500 start. She retired at the end of last season and will race for the small race team Premium Motorsports in this last race of her career. The former Stewart Haas Racing driver made a big splash in the 2013 Daytona 500, capturing the pole and finishing eighth that day. It was also her best-career performance at the historic Florida oval. In 11-career starts at Daytona International Speedway she's only claimed two Top-10 finishes (18-percent rate). That works out to an average finish of 25.8. Most concerning is the five DNF's she's posted at this speedway over the last six years. It seems that decision making and when to go/where to go in this draft racing is a skill Patrick never mastered in her years of racing in NASCAR.
Daniel Suarez - We're high on the young Joe Gibbs Racing driver for the 2018 season, and we think he'll take some significant steps in the upcoming season. However, we have to temper our expectations a bit for this season-opener at Daytona. Suarez made his first-two career starts at Daytona last year and they were uneven 29th- and 17th-place finishes. His Talladega efforts were only slightly better with 19th- and 15th-place showings. We believe Suarez still has a lot to learn about this style of racing. To his benefit the No. 19 Toyota will certainly be fast, but his decision making in the draft needs to improve. In six-career Xfinity Series starts at Daytona, Suarez only managed one Top-10 finish and 27.8 average finish, so this is a pattern that dates back to 2015 for this driver.