Daytona 500 Preview: The Great American Race

Daytona 500 Preview: The Great American Race

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We're set to kick off another season of NASCAR racing, and to get things started we head to the historic Daytona International Speedway for the season-opener. The Daytona 500, also known as the Great American Race, kicks off each Monster Energy Cup Series season and is by far the most prestigious event in the sport. The Daytona 500 is on par with the NFL's Super Bowl or Major League Baseball's World Series. It's unique in the fact that it leads off the season rather than ends it. No other major sport can make that same claim. All eyes in the motorsports world will be focused on Daytona this weekend, because the winner of this race is not only making history, but he's also setting the pace for the season to come.

If there's one thing that we can count on with Speedweeks at Daytona, its lots of practice laps. With all the exhibition and qualifying races, the drivers really get to know what they can and can't do with their cars over the weeklong events. 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

We're set to kick off another season of NASCAR racing, and to get things started we head to the historic Daytona International Speedway for the season-opener. The Daytona 500, also known as the Great American Race, kicks off each Monster Energy Cup Series season and is by far the most prestigious event in the sport. The Daytona 500 is on par with the NFL's Super Bowl or Major League Baseball's World Series. It's unique in the fact that it leads off the season rather than ends it. No other major sport can make that same claim. All eyes in the motorsports world will be focused on Daytona this weekend, because the winner of this race is not only making history, but he's also setting the pace for the season to come.

If there's one thing that we can count on with Speedweeks at Daytona, its lots of practice laps. With all the exhibition and qualifying races, the drivers really get to know what they can and can't do with their cars over the weeklong events. 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 Joey Logano 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 2018 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 Martin Truex Jr. both put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November. Those two drivers combined for seven Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes over the last five races of last season. Not to be outdone, the duo of Penske Racing, Logano and Brad Keselowski, grabbed six Top-5 and eight 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, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and William Byron had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their season-ending slumps are likely to continue well into 2019.

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 28 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch19.23,5381063833,01390.6
Ryan Blaney21.01,4003112985088.7
Kurt Busch16.94,024992912,93388.5
Denny Hamlin17.73,5041014072,68387.9
Jimmie Johnson20.83,834742723,06986.8
Joey Logano17.73,07278631,93886.0
Bubba Wallace Jr. 10.340510032883.8
Kevin Harvick17.93,3471141662,44583.1
Clint Bowyer16.02,9121111592,14378.8
Jamie McMurray21.64,20280522,52978.6
Brad Keselowski23.02,698611991,66978.4
Austin Dillon13.41,348491898978.3
Martin Truex Jr.21.73,33095922,51977.8
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.81,578577986675.4
Ryan Newman17.92,4391101022,06875.3
Erik Jones21.3306182120473.9
Paul Menard19.02,42282681,64073.5
Aric Almirola20.81,352582286672.6
Alex Bowman17.4389171437271.6
Kyle Larson24.91,199311669170.2

In this race one year ago we crowned a first-time Daytona 500 winner, Austin Dillon. There were 24 lead changes among 14 different drivers. Those were about the norm when compared to the previous three Daytona 500s. When the dust settled we saw Dillon hold off Bubba Wallace 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. 3 Chevrolet only led that final lap thanks to the quickly changing fortunes of this wild race, so it was finally Dillon'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 2019? Given the addition of Ford's new Mustang and different aerodynamic package, 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 difficult to replicate 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

Joey Logano - The reigning Monster Energy Cup Series champion will set out on his title defense in 2019. It all begins with this weekend's season-opener, the Daytona 500. Logano is the 2015 Daytona 500 winner and he's a four-time victor between the ovals of Talladega and Daytona. The Penske Racing star had a great season on the plate tracks in 2018. He grabbed a victory in the spring Talladega race, and Logano nabbed three Top-5 finishes in the four total events between Daytona and Talladega. Right now Penske teams are carrying the speed to win on these huge ovals, and it's Logano's No. 22 team that's leading the way.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is the winningest active driver on superspeedways with 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 2019 season. Keselowski won last season's Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, and he last won on a plate track in the fall of 2017 at Talladega. It was a bit of a lean year on the big ovals in 2018 for the No. 2 team, but that was primarily bad luck and being rolled up in crashes not of his making. Don't let last season's results cloud your judgment. Keselowski is still one of the top guns in the sport when it comes to superspeedway racing.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has become a go-to driver on these big ovals the last few seasons. The No. 17 Ford team grabbed a pair of victories between Daytona and Talladega in 2017. Last year Stenhouse led a combined 66-laps between these two ovals and grabbed two Top-5 finishes in those four events. It's a story of excellence on superspeedways for this driver and team that date back to the 2016 season. Stenhouse has two victories and six Top-5 finishes in his last 10 starts between Daytona and Talladega. He hasn't shown any sign of slowing down in this style of racing, so we expect to see Stenhouse racing among the leaders in the Daytona 500.

Aric Almirola -
One of the most consistent performers of the last couple seasons on the big ovals has been Almirola. We expect the good performance of the last two years to carry into 2019. With his victory at Talladega last fall, Almirola is our last winner on a superspeedway oval. Over the last two campaigns, the Stewart Haas Racing veteran has racked up one win and four Top-5 finishes on the plate tracks. Almirola finished 11th in last season's Daytona 500, and he finished a brilliant fourth in the 2017 installment of the Great American Race. This driver and team really are underappreciated for what they've accomplished on the big ovals. Make no mistake, Almirola is a contender to win this Sunday at Daytona.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

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 Duel races in the last five years and he's won two of his last five Clash exhibition races at Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led over 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 restrictor-plate races with two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last five combined Daytona/Talladega starts. Hamlin led 22 laps and finished third in last year's Daytona 500.

Erik Jones -
When we last raced at Daytona International Speedway, it wasn't a grizzled veteran that walked away the winner, it was youngster Jones. He fought it out in a heated battle over the final laps with Martin Truex Jr. to capture the win in the Coke Zero 400. It was his first-career Cup Series victory, but it certainly won't be his last. Jones now has four-career starts at the Daytona oval, and the stats are beginning to indicate some superspeedway potential. He has the win and two Top-10 finishes in those four starts to go along with 21 laps led. Drivers tend to make their own breaks in this style of racing, and luck does play a small part. It seems that Jones is figuring that out just two seasons into his Monster Energy Cup Series career. He was equally as impressive at Talladega last October, finishing eighth in the 1000Bulbs.com 500.

Ryan Blaney -
The third of the Penske drivers checks in on our solid plays list this weekend. Blaney has been a bit of an up-and-down performer on the superspeedways the last two seasons, but he seems to always save his best for Daytona, and specifically the Daytona 500. The driver of the No. 12 Ford dominated this event one year ago by leading 118 laps and finishing seventh at the end of a wild classic. Two years ago while racing for Wood Brothers, Blaney grabbed an impressive runner-up finish in the 2017 Daytona 500. It seems that the Great American Race brings out the best in this young driver. 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.

Kurt Busch -
After years of solid performance on the superspeedways, Busch was finally rewarded two years ago 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 one win, one runner-up finish and three Top 10s 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. 1 Chevrolet came through the maelstrom and grabbed an impressive runner-up finish. It's that skill, experience and knowledge you get with each start Busch makes at Daytona.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Daytona who can provide a solid finish

Kyle Busch - Perhaps the biggest risk/reward driver in the field this weekend is Busch in the No. 18 Toyota. He's a one-time winner at Daytona, but he's never won the Daytona 500. Busch's history at this oval is an uneven affair of brilliant finishes, and devastating DNF's. However, speed has never been an issue. With nearly 400-laps led at Daytona, Busch is almost always racing near the front. He displayed good speed this past weekend in the practices and Clash. We believe the Joe Gibbs Racing star has what it takes to be impressive this Sunday. If he can avoid the crash bugaboo, Busch should be a Top-5 finisher in the Great American Race.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Daytona International Speedway certainly has gotten the best of Truex over his 14-season career. In 27 starts the Joe Gibbs Racing star has just four Top-10 finishes to his credit. However, he almost always brings fast cars into the race, and that should be the case again this Sunday. The good indicators are that Truex has nabbed a pair of runner-up finishes in his last six Daytona starts. The last coming in last July's Coke Zero Sugar 400. He led a career-best 20 laps in that Daytona event and finished runner-up to Erik Jones. The other indicator we look for is how well the No. 19 team has practiced this week and how they ran in the Clash last weekend. Truex has shown good speed all week. In fact, he looks like the fastest of the four Joe Gibbs drivers in the field. This veteran driver's spotty Daytona history will cause some to overlook him in fantasy racing, but he does carry some big risk/reward potential.

Ryan Newman -
Newman may be in a new ride for 2019, but that doesn't at all diminish his value on superspeedways. In fact, the move to Roush Fenway Racing should keep Rocket Man pointed toward the front on these huge ovals. Roush powered Fords have been pretty fast the last few seasons with drivers like Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind the wheel. There won't be any drop off with Newman. The veteran driver has one Daytona 500 victory to his credit (2008) and he has 10-career Top-10 finishes at this historic speedway. Three of those 10 have come in just his last three starts with his old Richard Childress Racing team. Newman's 34 starts of Daytona experience can't be undersold. He certainly understands how to race in the draft and the tricky timing of when to make your move. He'll make good use of a fast Roush Ford this Sunday.

Alex Bowman -
Since returning to full-time Cup Series action last year, Bowman has shown a real knack for superspeedway racing. He won the pole for last year's Daytona 500, and then won the outside pole for the July Daytona race. He's back on the front row again this Sunday, and it comes as little surprise. Bowman led a combined 14 laps at Daytona last season, and finished a respectable 10th in the summer Coke Zero 400. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet led 26 laps and finished eighth last spring at Talladega, so consistent pattern is beginning to form. We believe Bowman is still learning all the ins-and-outs of restrictor-plate racing, but it's clear he has the gift and the speed. We should likely see a career-best Daytona finish this Sunday for this young driver.

Austin Dillon -
Dillon cashed in last season in the Daytona 500, kept his foot in the gas pedal and grabbed the 2018 Daytona 500 victory in a wild, wild finish. That performance capped what has been a tremendous career for the young driver at this oval. Dillon now owns one win and seven Top-10 finishes in his 11-career starts at the historic speedway. After the Daytona 500 victory, the RCR driver returned in July last year and collected a steady ninth-place finish in the Coke Zero Sugar 400, which is his most recent Daytona effort. Not many drivers in the field can boast a 64-percent Top-10 rate at Daytona International Speedway, and that did not happen by accident for Dillon and the No. 3 team.

Paul Menard -
The incredible speed that Menard showed this past Sunday in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona was no accident. Wood Brothers Racing has been cranking out strong superspeedway cars for decades, and Menard is a gifted pilot on these huge ovals. Unfortunately for Menard, he got into late-race contact with Jimmie Johnson and that dashed his hopes for a Clash win. Still, the speed that the No. 21 team displayed must be taken into account for the Daytona 500. Menard's last two seasons of superspeedway racing have yielded two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the eight events. That's a fantastic average finish of 12.8 over the span and among the best in the series. In last year's Daytona 500, the veteran driver peddled the team's No. 21 Ford to a strong sixth-place finish. He has that potential this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson - It's a risky calculation to put the Clash winner in the slow down list this week, but we feel certain Johnson's shaky Daytona history trumps anything that happened in a twice-interrupted by weather 75-lap exhibition race last weekend. Sure, the No. 48 Chevrolet had great speed, and Johnson arguably made the right move at the pivotal point of the race to win. However, when we look at Johnson's record in points races at Daytona, the picture is much dimmer. His 41-percent career Top-10 rate has taken a hit in the last few seasons. Johnson has just two Top-10 finishes in his last eight Daytona starts vs. four DNF's. The seven-time champion has had sporadic success at Daytona, but recent years have been pretty lean. We feel it's just way too risky to deploy Johnson in this big race.

Kyle Larson -
While Larson will be more of a solid plays list driver for most of the season, and especially on intermediate ovals, he's more of skip over driver for the superspeedway races. His two-career Top-10 finishes at Daytona in 10 starts checks in at a lowly 20-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 looked pedestrian at best during qualifying and last weekend's Advance Auto Parts Clash. His speed was not very impressive. Larson tends to find trouble more often than not in these superspeedway races, and his five-career Daytona DNF's attest to this fact. It's best to keep Larson on the bench this week and later deploy him at an oval like Atlanta.

Chase Elliott -
Despite grabbing an impressive three pole positions in his first six Daytona starts, Elliott has yet to really make an impact racing at the historic Florida oval. In fact, he has just one Top-15 finish vs. two DNF's in those first six outings. It hasn't been for a lack of speed as Elliott has led 61 combined laps in those first six Daytona races. His sense of where to go in the draft and when seems to be his biggest problem. The Hendrick Motorsports star tends to get shuffled out late in these races only to finish outside the Top 20 in most instances. Elliott is still learning the ins-and-outs of superspeedway racing and that's pretty obvious from the numbers. He can go really fast around this oval in qualifying, but that doesn't translate to the race or good finishes. He's an underperform candidate for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Daniel Suarez -
Suarez is finding his way with his new home at Stewart Haas Racing. He takes over the No. 41 Ford for 2019, and this weekend's Daytona 500 will mark his debut at SHR. Unfortunately, the young driver has had it pretty rough at the superspeedways through his first two seasons of racing at NASCAR's top level. Four starts at Daytona International Speedway have yielded just one Top-15 vs. three finishes outside the Top 25. Three of those efforts ended in early-race or mid-race crashes. Suarez found racing at Talladega slightly easier in his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. The wider lanes of Talladega helped him to one Top 10 in four starts and an average finish 14 spots better than Daytona. There's simply too many variables and not enough good results to pin on Suarez for success this weekend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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