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 NASCAR Cup Series season and is by far the most prestigious event in the sport.  The Daytona 500 is to NASCAR what the Super Bowl is to the NFL or the World Series is to Major League Baseball.  It's unique in that it leads off the season rather than ends it.  No other major sport can make that 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, it's 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 quickly shifting

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 NASCAR Cup Series season and is by far the most prestigious event in the sport.  The Daytona 500 is to NASCAR what the Super Bowl is to the NFL or the World Series is to Major League Baseball.  It's unique in that it leads off the season rather than ends it.  No other major sport can make that 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, it's 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 quickly shifting 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 Kyle Busch the NASCAR Cup Series champion for the second 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 2019 season on a high note to continue their momentum with the short offseason and right into the Daytona 500.  The teams of Joe Gibbs Racing would be a good example of this point.  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November.  Those three drivers combined for four victories, nine Top-5 and 14 Top-10 finishes over the last six races of last season.  Not to be outdone, the duo of Penske Racing, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, grabbed one win, five Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes over those final six 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 Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their season-ending slumps are likely to continue well into 2020.

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 30 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch18.43,8861164233,29291.2
Denny Hamlin17.43,8461034422,89887.8
Jimmie Johnson19.84,225832723,29187.2
Kurt Busch16.94,2161092993,04787.1
Joey Logano17.43,443831142,21587.0
Ryan Blaney23.81,760321431,09886.7
Kevin Harvick18.63,6501181782,69283.2
William Byron19.5374155633383.1
Clint Bowyer16.83,2511171622,36178.4
Brad Keselowski23.22,890671991,84878.2
Austin Dillon15.11,43254641,07777.5
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.71,96964971,11377.0
Martin Truex Jr.22.13,539100922,61776.8
Darrell Wallace Jr.16.857123039275.7
Alex Bowman17.0603251458175.2
Erik Jones18.5498322136475.2
Ryan Newman17.42,5181231022,16074.8
Aric Almirola20.61,64561221,06172.8
Chase Elliott28.01,081356469772.3
Kyle Larson23.01,414411681071.3

In this race one year ago we crowned second-time Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin.  There were just 15 lead changes among nine different drivers.  Those figures are a bit lower than the norm when compared to the previous three Daytona 500s.  The whopping 10 caution periods due to crashes or debris played a big role in the lack of lead changes.  When the dust settled we saw Hamlin hold off teammate Kyle Busch by 0.138 seconds at the finish line to capture his second Daytona 500 victory and record yet another exciting finish in Daytona history.  The driver of the No. 11 Toyota headed up a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2-3 finish that day, and capped one of the most thrilling races of the entire season.  How can we top that in 2020?  Considering that NASCAR returned to Daytona last July and held a race that was nearly 70 laps shorter (due to rain), but had 24 total lead changes, we could be poised for major thrills.  It might be difficult to replicate that dramatic finish from last year, but the entertainment factor should be off the charts.  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 season-opening Daytona 500.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin won both the 2016 and 2019 Daytona 500, and in doing so he's become an elite level talent in this style of NASCAR racing.  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 six years and he's won two of his last six Busch Clash exhibition races at Daytona.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has led close to 450 laps for his career at Daytona International Speedway, and it's really a wonder that he doesn't have more than just two Daytona 500 wins.  He's been one of the more dominant drivers in recent superspeedway races with one win and four Top-5 finishes in his last eight combined Daytona/Talladega starts.  Hamlin has become the driver to beat each time the Cup Series visits Daytona International Speedway.

Joey Logano – Logano is the 2015 Daytona 500 champion and he's a four-time victor between the ovals of Talladega and Daytona.  The Penske Racing star had a great season on the big ovals in 2019.  He grabbed a pair of fourth-place finishes in the early-season Daytona and Talladega events, and he registered a respectable 11th-place finish at Talladega last fall.  Over the past two seasons alone, Logano has racked up one win and five Top-5 finishes.  It only adds to what is an impressive and growing resume on these superspeedways for this driver and team.  Logano understands the ins-and-outs of racing in the draft, and when to make your move late in these races.  That's the key to victory.  It doesn't hurt that Team Penske typically gives this veteran driver mind-blowing speed each time we visit Daytona.    

Erik Jones – Last weekend's winner of the Busch Clash has seen his Daytona stock rise dramatically the last couple seasons.  Jones won the summer event at Daytona in 2018, and now he has a victory in the Clash.  These are not coincidences, as it takes something special to win at Daytona more than once.  In his last five Daytona outings, Jones has racked up a win, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes.  The young driver has been quietly creeping up on the more noteworthy drivers at this track.  The time for his first Daytona 500 victory may be at hand.  At a minimum, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota will be in the running with the leaders in Sunday's closing laps.  Jones will be a factor in the outcome of this Great American Race.     

Ryan Blaney – The bolt out of the blue this weekend could be Blaney and his No. 12 Penske Racing team.  This young driver was our last superspeedway victor when he grabbed a very dominant win at Talladega last October.  He led 35 laps that day and held off a surging Ryan Newman to capture his first superspeedway victory.  Blaney has been a bit of an up-and-down performer on the big ovals during his brief NASCAR career, but things seem to be falling into place for this driver and team.  Blaney finished runner-up in the 2017 Daytona 500, and he led a whopping 118 laps in the 2018 Daytona 500.  All indications are that he likes this oval a bit more than the one in Talladega.  Don't be surprised if Blaney hoists the Harley J. Earl Trophy over his head for the first time this Sunday afternoon. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot at the win

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 over 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.  In the Daytona 500 one year ago, Busch shook his bad Daytona luck and pushed Denny Hamlin to the win and himself to the runner-up finish.     

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 three years to carry into 2020.  Almirola won at Talladega in the fall of 2018 and he won the summer Daytona race in 2014.  The driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford brings that homerun potential to the table in superspeedway racing.  Almirola has a strong resume of one win, two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts between Daytona and Talladega for a robust average finish of 12.2.  This veteran driver seems to have a knack for avoiding the crashes and moving to the front late in these high-risk races.  His seventh-place finish in his last Daytona start last July is a good example of the potential for this weekend.     

Kurt Busch – The 2017 Daytona 500 winner checks in on the solid plays list this week.  Busch has been a career-long performer on the big ovals.  Just last season alone the veteran driver racked up two Top-10 finishes in his four starts between Daytona and Talladega.  Busch now has 18-career Daytona Top 10's which ranks him first among active drivers, and the rate checks in at a lofty 49-percent.  Anything approaching 50-percent in this form of high stakes racing is elite level.  Busch's last Daytona start in last July's Coke Zero Sugar 400 netted the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet 8 laps led and a respectable 10th-place finish.  With just four DNF's in 19 seasons of racing at Daytona, Busch has an extraordinary finishing rate at this track.     

Ryan Newman – Newman has really come to life on the superspeedways in recent years.  The 42-year-old veteran has only gotten better in this style of racing with time, much like a fine wine.  Newman sports six Top-10 finishes in his last eight combined starts between Daytona and Talladega, and understand those stats span two different race teams.  His Daytona performance in particular has been very good.  Newman has two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last five Daytona starts.  He hasn't had a crash and DNF at this volatile race track since the 2010 season.  Most fantasy racing players will target higher profile drivers in their lineups for the Daytona 500.  Don't be left out of the value that Newman brings to the table in DFS and weekly lineup leagues.

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Daytona & solid upside

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – This weekend's pole winner for the Daytona 500 came roaring into his new race team at JTG Daugherty Racing.  Stenhouse is a gifted superspeedway performer and his team is fully realizing that now.  He is a one-time Daytona winner (July 2017) and he is also a one-time Talladega winner (May 2017).  Stenhouse's last two seasons of racing on the big ovals haven't been quite up to par with just three Top-10 finishes in his last eight starts.  However, that doesn't diminish his knowledge and skill at this form of stock car racing.  His last start at Talladega last October is a good illustration of that fact.  Stenhouse led 32 laps in the No. 17 Ford and peddled to a respectable ninth-place finish in the 1000Bulbs.com 500.     

Alex Bowman – This Sunday will mark the third-straight season that Bowman starts the Great American Race on the front row.  To this point he's made fair finishes in the prior two Daytona 500's with 17th- and 11th-place finishes.  However, this Sunday could prove to be the best performance of the bunch.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver has been gradually improving in this style of racing.  With just seven-career starts at Daytona and just nine at Talladega, the lessons learned are starting to kick in.  The best evidence of that was Bowman's stellar runner-up finish in last season's spring Talladega race.  He led 7 laps that afternoon and scooted to the second-place finish behind teammate, Chase Elliott.  Bowman should bring some sneaky fantasy racing value to the table in this Sunday's Daytona 500.

Ty Dillon – Dillon and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have evolved into superspeedway specialists over the past few seasons.  The young driver carries a three-race Daytona Top-10 streak into Sunday's action, and he also grabbed three Top 10's last season between the four starts at Daytona and Talladega.  His two-season average finish at these big ovals stands at a solid 14.0.  That tells us that he's not only avoiding the wrecks and finishing races, but he's racing around the Top 10 most starts.  In the Daytona 500 one year ago, Dillon peddled the No. 13 Chevrolet to a stellar sixth-place finish.  To prove that was no fluke he returned in the summer and posted an even better fourth-place effort in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.        

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson's 16-career Top-10 Daytona finishes ranks second among active drivers and only trails Kurt Busch's 18.  Those 18 seasons of racing at the famed banks of Daytona International Speedway have netted the seven-time champion three victories (two in the Daytona 500), 299 laps led, 12 Top-5 and 16 Top-10 finishes.  Although he will be racing in his last Daytona 500, don't discount the No. 48 Chevrolet team.  Johnson may have slowed in other forms of NASCAR racing, but he looked pretty good at Daytona last season.  He grabbed a ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500 one year ago and returned in the summer to collect an even better third-place finish.  With 36-career starts at Daytona, few drivers can match Johnson's accomplishments and experience racing at this oval.     

Matt DiBenedetto – This is a brilliant combination of up-and-coming driver and a team that has tons of history performing at Daytona.  DiBenedetto moves from Leavine Family Racing to Wood Brothers Racing for the 2020 season.  Despite the move, this driver and team look made for each other.  DiBenedetto's Daytona stats the last three seasons have yielded three Top-10 finishes in his last six starts.  Consider also that those numbers are spread between two different race teams.  In this race one year ago, DiBenedetto led a whopping 49 laps in the Leavine Family Racing Toyota, but was caught up in a late-race melee and saddled with a 28th-place finish.  He'll look to rebound in this installment of the Great American Race.  Wood Brothers Racing has powered 15 Daytona winners over the last 60 years, including most recently Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 victory in 2011.   

William Byron – The next in a line of budding superstars appears to be Byron.  He made some major strides last season, and we expect him to make a few more in 2020.  Byron's impact on the new season could start as early as this Sunday in the Daytona 500.  The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet put down a good qualifying lap of eighth overall, but didn't quite make the front row for Sunday's race.  Still, the team's Camaro showed good speed.  Byron is still learning this form of racing, but he's proving to be a quick study.  He led 57 combined laps last season between Daytona and Talladega with 44 coming in last season's Daytona 500.  Byron nabbed a brilliant runner-up finish in the July Daytona race.  While his resume is short on results, he's still a driver to watch this Sunday.  He has the good speed, and he's quickly learning what to do with it.   

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Brad Keselowski – The Penske Racing star is the winningest active driver on superspeedways with six combined victories between Daytona and Talladega.  That is an awesome stat, but it has been overshadowed by two factors of late.  Keselowski is a better performer at Talladega than Daytona, and he's been beset with incredibly bad luck in superspeedway racing the last three seasons.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford hasn't cracked the Top 10 at Talladega in his last four attempts, and he hasn't cracked the Top 10 at Daytona in his last six attempts.  Instead, it's been a rash of crashes and DNF's for the Penske Racing veteran.  With five DNF's in his last eight superspeedway starts, Keselowski has been left dumbfounded looking for answers.  With just a 19-percent career Top-10 rate at Daytona, it's best to looks past Keselowski this weekend and not take the risk. 

Martin Truex Jr. – Daytona International Speedway certainly has gotten the best of Truex over his 15-season career.  In 29 starts the Joe Gibbs Racing star has just four Top-10 finishes to his credit (14-percent).  However, he almost always brings fast cars into the race, and that should be the case again this Sunday.  A good illustration of this driver's bad Daytona luck happened in this past Sunday's Busch Clash.  The No. 19 Toyota was awesome and fast, but Truex once again found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He would get rolled up in a lap 72 accident and finish 16th-place in the 18-driver field.  It's tempting to deploy Truex and his Joe Gibbs Racing team in the Daytona 500, but the risks outweigh the potential rewards.  This driver is simply snake bitten in this style of NASCAR racing.     

Kyle Larson – We've seen Larson go for a wild ride more than once in these brutal superspeedway races.  Maybe the wildest ever was his airborne ride and crash at Talladega last October where he finished 39th-place.  In just the last two seasons alone he crashed and DNF'd four times vs. one Top 10 in his Daytona and Talladega starts.  That's been Laron's career for the most part racing on these high-risk ovals.  With just three Top-10 finishes in 12-career starts at Daytona, the 25-percent Top-10 rate does little to motivate us.  He did finish seventh in the Daytona 500 one year ago, but in the big picture that has been the outlier rather than the standard.  It's best to keep Larson and the No. 42 team on the fantasy racing bench this Sunday.      

Chase Elliott – Despite grabbing a first-ever superspeedway victory at Talladega last season, we have to recommend against deploying Elliott in the Great American race this Sunday.  The three-time Daytona pole winner seems to be improving at the Alabama oval, but not at the Florida oval.  Although the racing style is similar between the two ovals, there are enough differences in the two that will sometimes lead to a driver being better at one or the other.  This is the case for Elliott.  In eight-career starts at Daytona, he's yet to crack the Top 10, and he's finished outside the Top 30 on five occasions.  Four of those have been because of crashes and DNF's.  The career average finish for Elliott at Daytona stands at a lofty 28.0 right now.  It's best to avoid him in fantasy lineups 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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