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 on par with the NFL's Super Bowl or Major League Baseball's World Series. It's unique in the fact that it opens the racing 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, it's a lot of practice laps. With all the practice sessions and qualifying races, the drivers really get to know what they can and can't do with their cars over the week of events. Once the drivers get familiar with the aero package and handling of their cars, 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 precariously close

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 on par with the NFL's Super Bowl or Major League Baseball's World Series. It's unique in the fact that it opens the racing 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, it's a lot of practice laps. With all the practice sessions and qualifying races, the drivers really get to know what they can and can't do with their cars over the week of events. Once the drivers get familiar with the aero package and handling of their cars, 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 precariously close 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, and 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. As we saw in last season's Daytona 500 with Austin Cindric and the other Penske Racing drivers, it can make for some pretty big fireworks coming to the checkered flag on that last lap. 

This will be our first points race since the teams loaded up at Phoenix last November, and crowned Joey Logano the NASCAR Cup Series champion. While superspeedway 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 2022 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.  Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell put together good streaks of consistency as the season closed last November. Those two drivers combined for two victories, 10 Top-5 and 15 Top-10 finishes over the last 10 races of last season. Not to be outdone, the duo of Penske Racing (Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney), grabbed two victories, eight Top-5 and 10 Top-10 finishes over those final 10 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 Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch had better hit the ground running at Daytona, or their season-ending slumps are likely to continue well into 2023.

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, laps inside the Top 15 and the driver rating derived from those statistics. 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 36 races at Daytona International Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Austin Cindric6.3258103639493.4
Kyle Busch19.14,7661305084,12491.7
Denny Hamlin16.84,7291306483,62889.0
Joey Logano18.04,3521112343,05388.3
Jimmie Johnson20.24,614912753,54587.4
Ryan Blaney18.12,503391911,69284.4
Kevin Harvick18.14,3341362053,31682.3
Bubba Wallace 12.41,378602395880.8
Chase Elliott20.92,085641571,46580.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.22,816891371,81579.0
Austin Dillon14.72,07375851,61578.4
Brad Keselowski23.13,675892972,56278.3
Martin Truex Jr.21.54,2861481313,18277.5
William Byron25.5952309470276.4
Christopher Bell25.5779294253675.9
Alex Bowman17.81,43745301,06275.9
Todd Gilliland28.02534021274.9
Erik Jones21.81,061586176172.1
Tyler Reddick22.0681291438171.6
Ryan Preece19.543731136771.0

In this race one year ago we crowned a first-time Daytona 500 winner and rookie, Austin Cindric. There were an exciting 35 lead changes among 13 different drivers. Those figures are up a good bit when compared to the previous three Daytona 500's. We would attribute that aspect to the Next-Gen car. The whopping seven caution periods due to crashes or debris played a bit of a role in keeping the lead change totals in check just a bit. When the dust settled we saw Cindric hold off a trio of challengers by the narrowest of margins as the front of the field was battling fender-to-fender on the last lap. The No. 23 Toyota of Bubba Wallace would cross the finish line second by just 0.036-seconds and closely followed by the No. 14 Ford of Chase Briscoe in third-place.

For the driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford, it would be his first-career victory and in just his eighth-career start as a rookie in the Cup Series. It capped one of the most thrilling races of the entire season. How can we top that in 2023? Considering that NASCAR returned to Daytona last August and held a race that was 41 laps shorter, but had an impressive 39 total lead changes, we could be poised for major thrills. It might be difficult to replicate that dramatic finish from last season's Daytona 500, 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 this oval 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

Joey Logano – Logano had a bit of a rough season on the superspeedway ovals in 2022, but he still came out of last season as the Cup Series champion. We fully expect he and the No. 22 Ford team will rebound to their usual form on the big ovals. Logano is a three-time Talladega winner and a one-time Daytona victor (2015 Daytona 500). He's led nearly 250 laps at Daytona International Speedway and most of those have come since the 2019 season. The Penske Racing star's last start at Daytona came last August. He would qualify a strong third-place on the grid, lead 14 laps and race very competitively before finishing 12th-place in the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Logano has a good knack for this style of racing and his 21-percent Top-5 rate at Daytona validates that fact.  

Denny Hamlin – Although Hamlin was held out of victory lane on the superspeedway tracks last season, he still showed good speed and raced competitively. The Joe Gibbs Racing star would lead a total of 42 laps between Daytona and Talladega, and Hamlin would grab an impressive fifth-place finish in his August start at Daytona. It was his last look on a superspeedway oval and a very good look at that. You will not find a more decorated or excellent driver for this form of stock car racing in the field. Hamlin is a three-time Daytona 500 winner and he's won twice at the similar oval in Talladega. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota is one of the more experienced and knowledgeable drivers in the field in superspeedway racing.

Ryan Blaney – Over the past two seasons alone, Blaney has amassed some great numbers on the ovals of Daytona and Talladega. The driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford has one Daytona win (summer 2021), one Talladega runner-up finish and three Top-5 finishes in these races. Blaney has led a strong 108 laps combined between the two tracks since the 2021 season. That makes he and the No. 12 team one of the top superspeedway performers entering this Daytona 500. Blaney was in the mix for the win in the closing laps of last season's Great American Race. He would lead 36 laps and battle among multiple drivers at the front in the closing laps to secure a strong fourth-place finish. Despite two-career wins at Talladega and one Daytona victory, he's still winless in the Great American Race. Maybe this is the season where he breaks through to Daytona 500 glory and history.     

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports star has been one of the top, consistent superspeedway performers of the last two seasons. Elliott grabbed a runner-up finish in the 2021 Daytona 500 and he finished a strong 10th-place in last season's Great American Race. The driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet also earned a win in his last superspeedway start, which was last August at Talladega. Elliott in his Chevrolet almost always seem to be racing among the leaders when we come down to crunch time in these frantic and volatile superspeedway races. Despite winning twice at Talladega, Elliott doesn't own a Daytona trophy. Although he's sat on the pole three times in his career at Daytona and he's finished runner-up twice, as recently as 2021. Elliott has a nose for this style of racing, and it seems like his breakthrough could happen at any time.

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

Austin Cindric – Last season's Daytona 500 winner is back to defend his race crown. Cindric not only won this event one year ago, he was one of the more consistent performers on the superspeedways last season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford grabbed one win, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the four races combined at Talladega and Daytona. Cindric showed a real aptitude as a rookie in this style of racing. In his five-career superspeedway starts, Daytona appears to be his favorite of the two ovals and the results show it. With an average finish of 6.3 across his three starts at the historic Florida speedway, Cindric is off to a really great start racing at this facility. While a successful defense of his race win of one year ago may be a stretch, there's a very good chance he'll be battling among the leaders in those closing laps Sunday afternoon.

William Byron – Byron had some tough luck on the superspeedways last season, but his speed was undeniable. The Hendrick Motorsports star led 41 laps between Daytona and Talladega, but was unfortunate enough to crash out of two of those events. Luck evens out at some point, and when it does Byron should fetch the results. He's a one-time winner at Daytona (2020) and he also won the pole for the 2019 Daytona 500. Additionally, Byron has a runner-up finish in the summer 2019 Daytona race. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet also has two Top-5 finishes, including a runner-up finish at Talladega since the 2020 season. The statistics clearly show that this driver and team understand the ins-and-outs of superspeedway racing, but Byron just needs to catch a few breaks. He has high-ceiling potential in Sunday's Great American Race.       

Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has always shown an affinity for racing at Daytona International Speedway. Dillon is a two-time winner at the historic Florida oval. He won the 2018 Daytona 500 and he won the last Cup Series race at Daytona with his victory in last August's Coke Zero Sugar 400. Dillon's nine-career Top-10 finishes at DIS checks in at a very strong 47-percent rate in this high stakes form of racing. The driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet also finished an impressive runner-up in last season's spring event at Talladega, showing that Dillon has a good mastery of the Next Gen car on these big ovals. The veteran is one of the few drivers in the field that completely understands the aspects and timing of racing in the superspeedway draft.              

Bubba Wallace – You can't argue with results, and Wallace has results aplenty at Daytona International Speedway. The 23XI Racing veteran grabbed a runner-up finish in last season's Daytona 500 and that is one of three runner-up and four Top-5 finishes Wallace has at Daytona. His 12.4 average finish across 11 starts at this speedway is a stellar mark as you can see when reviewing the loop stats in the table above. Wallace is also a one-time winner at the Talladega oval (2021) with 53-career laps led at that similar facility. It's clear that Wallace has the gift of superspeedway driving. He and the No. 23 Toyota team have brought home good results in recent seasons, with very few DNF's in this very risky style of racing.          

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Daytona & solid upside

Kyle Busch – Perhaps the biggest risk/reward driver in the field this weekend is Busch in the No. 8 Chevrolet. 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 Busch moving to a new race team and new manufacturer (Chevrolet) in 2023, there's good reason there will be some renewed optimism and a hunger to succeed in this Daytona 500. As bad as last season was for this two-time champion, Busch still had great finishing stats on the superspeedway ovals. He nabbed one Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes between Daytona and Talladega. He's a very intriguing fantasy racing prospect for this weekend's season-opener.     

Michael McDowell – McDowell won the 2021 Daytona 500 and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team has proven to be quite capable the last couple seasons on these big ovals. The veteran driver nabbed a strong seventh-place finish in last season's Daytona 500. That was one of three Top-10 finishes that McDowell earned between Talladega and Daytona last year. His last outing on a superspeedway oval was a very strong third-place finish in the YellaWood 500 at Talladega last October. That's a very good last look for this driver and team on a big oval heading into Daytona this weekend. McDowell is a driver you don't want to sleep on in fantasy racing lineups.

Kyle Larson – Larson has shown great speed the last two seasons on these superspeedway ovals, but his bad luck has kept him from posting the finishing stats he likely deserves. The Hendrick Motorsports star is a bit of a roll of the dice from that standpoint, but his speed in these Daytona and Talladega events is undeniable. Larson has captured the last three Daytona pole positions and he's qualified inside the Top 5 in his last six-straight superspeedway events. That good starting track position has led to 44 laps led in the last six contests between Talladega and Daytona, but his three DNF's in that same span have dampened his results. Larson and his No. 5 Chevrolet are a team capable of challenging the Top 5 in the Daytona 500, assuming lady luck will cooperate.

Erik Jones – Jones has proven his worth racing on superspeedway ovals the last two seasons. The driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet has grabbed three Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last six starts between Daytona and Talladega. More interestingly, Jones led a lot of laps in these races last season in the Next Gen car. He led 73 laps combined in those four events and really flexed the superspeedway muscles of the Legacy Motor Club (formerly Petty GMS Motorsports). Jones is a one-time Daytona winner (2018) and he finished an impressive third-place in the 2019 Daytona 500. He's always had high potential in this form of racing, and now it seems he's finally paired with the team and cars that maximizes Jones' potential in these races.

Martin Truex Jr. – Daytona International Speedway has been tough on Truex over the years. His 17-percent career Top-10 rate at this oval doesn't inspire much confidence. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing star made some headway on these big ovals last season, collecting two Top-10 finishes in the four events. His Daytona performances were respectable 13th- and eighth-place finishes. Truex seems to have a good handle on the Next Gen car with this style of racing. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota also nabbed a strong fifth-place finish in the spring Talladega event after sitting on the outside pole for that race. Coming off a surprising and big win in the exhibition at the Los Angeles Coliseum two weeks ago, Truex is riding some momentum into this Daytona 500.      

Ross Chastain – Chastain excelled at many things last season, and superspeedway racing was a part of that excellence. The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet grabbed an impressive win at Talladega last spring and he would lead 36 laps and finish a strong fourth in last October's YellaWood 500 at Talladega. Chastain's luck wasn't as good at Daytona, but he's looking to reverse that trend with the new season. The veteran driver has shown great ability at Daytona in his past Xfinity Series career. Chastain has one win and seven-career Top 10's at DIS (54-percent) in that division of NASCAR. He can most certainly perform at this oval and the Trackhouse Racing team should give him a hot rod capable of battling with the leaders.        

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Kevin Harvick – The two-time Daytona winner hasn't been a major threat to win these superspeedway races in recent seasons. Harvick's last Daytona victory was in 2010, and he has only cracked the Top 10 in two of his last 13 starts at the historic Florida oval. His Top-10 rate at Daytona has slumped to a subpar 37-percent after DNF's in this last two Daytona starts. Harvick will be making his last start in the Great American Race, so emotions will be huge to be sure. However, the driver of the No. 4 Ford wasn't very impressive in the Next Gen car last season in these superspeedway events. Harvick had just one Top 10 vs. two DNF's in the four events between Daytona and Talladega. He makes a very high risk fantasy racing prospect for the season-opener.           

Aric Almirola – The one-time Daytona and one-time Talladega winner used to be one of our favorite fantasy racing go-to's in terms of superspeedway racing. However, Almirola has cooled off in recent seasons and last season in the new generation stock car was a part of that performance downturn. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran grabbed just one Top 10 in his four superspeedway starts. With just one Top 10 in his last six Daytona starts, Almirola has seen his Daytona Top-10 rate sink to just 18-percent. That's well below the mark we consider fantasy worthy for the Daytona 500. Talladega has been the better of the two superspeedway tracks for Almirola, but he's fell into a slump there as well. Just one of his last six starts at Talladega have netted a Top-10 finish.      

Christopher Bell – While we're high on Bell in terms of season-long performance, the first weekend may be one to bench Bell in terms of weekly lineup and salary cap leagues. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster had a tough campaign on the superspeedways last season, and those were about the only tracks he struggled to perform on last year. Bell captured two Talladega poles in 2022, but he only led a scant 7 laps in his four superspeedway starts of last season. With two DNF's, Bell saw his average finish in these races come in at an inflated 27.3. It's starting to look like a trend for the fourth-season driver. Bell's six Daytona starts have yet to net a Top-10 finish and his 25.3 average finish across the span doesn't inspire much confidence. 

Tyler Reddick – The young driver has a lot to prove in 2023. Reddick's big move from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing will test some of the presumptions we have about the youngster. Still, he'll have to shake his reputation on superspeedways from last year right out of the gate in the Daytona 500. Reddick had just one Top-10 finish in four combined Daytona and Talladega starts last season vs. two DNF's. The average finish checked in at an undesirable 26.0 across the span. With just two Top 10's in seven-career Daytona starts (29-percent) and 21.9 average finish, Reddick has a lot to prove with his new race team. The good news is that 23XI has shown fast cars in these Daytona races of the past, but we'd still advise taking a wait and see approach with Reddick to start the year. 

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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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