Dixie Vodka 400 Preview: Toyota Defends its Turf

Dixie Vodka 400 Preview: Toyota Defends its Turf

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This week we head to South Florida and return to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a 400-mile race on this challenging intermediate oval.  The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the 1.5-mile true oval with variable banking for the first time since last June's COVID makeup race at the track. 

Homestead-Miami Speedway's unique configuration, which includes relatively flat straightaways of 3 degrees and 20-degree variable banked turns, presents a challenge unlike any facility on the circuit.  This unique cookie cutter track will present a challenge after racing on the big oval and road course of Daytona recently.

For 21 years Homestead-Miami Speedway played host to the NASCAR Cup Series season finale.  It's been the climax of the NASCAR playoffs and where the Cup Series champion is crowned each season.  The sanctioning body shook up the schedule in 2020 and moved Homestead to an early season date.  With the Coronavirus pandemic, we saw Homestead's new date slip into the mid-summer of last season.  This year we finally get to race this 400-mile event in its true schedule slot.  We've never raced in late February at the South Florida oval, so there should be plenty of curve balls and surprises in store for the drivers and teams.  Like many of these rescheduled races with the lack of qualifying and practice laps, we're somewhat venturing into uncharted waters. 

Since we only come to Homestead-Miami Speedway once a year, we will need to rely on historical information to a great extent for this Sunday's race.  The usual

This week we head to South Florida and return to Homestead-Miami Speedway for a 400-mile race on this challenging intermediate oval.  The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the 1.5-mile true oval with variable banking for the first time since last June's COVID makeup race at the track. 

Homestead-Miami Speedway's unique configuration, which includes relatively flat straightaways of 3 degrees and 20-degree variable banked turns, presents a challenge unlike any facility on the circuit.  This unique cookie cutter track will present a challenge after racing on the big oval and road course of Daytona recently.

For 21 years Homestead-Miami Speedway played host to the NASCAR Cup Series season finale.  It's been the climax of the NASCAR playoffs and where the Cup Series champion is crowned each season.  The sanctioning body shook up the schedule in 2020 and moved Homestead to an early season date.  With the Coronavirus pandemic, we saw Homestead's new date slip into the mid-summer of last season.  This year we finally get to race this 400-mile event in its true schedule slot.  We've never raced in late February at the South Florida oval, so there should be plenty of curve balls and surprises in store for the drivers and teams.  Like many of these rescheduled races with the lack of qualifying and practice laps, we're somewhat venturing into uncharted waters. 

Since we only come to Homestead-Miami Speedway once a year, we will need to rely on historical information to a great extent for this Sunday's race.  The usual suspects race very well at the South Florida oval, and most performing well now.  While current hot streaks will play a small part in this week's picks, we'll rely to a great extent on past data to outline the drivers for this event.  Here are the loop stats for the last 16 races at Homestead.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Tyler Reddick4.054483265115.5
Kyle Larson13.03102523251,447107.0
Kevin Harvick6.87012553563,567106.8
Martin Truex Jr.8.98162913123,476105.9
Kyle Busch15.76692924653,273102.1
Denny Hamlin9.96791923933,159100.1
Chase Elliott8.028154271,11096.9
Joey Logano13.9418831852,06991.6
Brad Keselowski14.1547801082,31889.0
Austin Dillon12.62991701,23383.4
Ryan Newman14.867634432,73783.3
Christopher Bell8.0373013982.7
Ryan Blaney17.2214577092980.9
Erik Jones18.015834054580.8
Kurt Busch18.4518102652,03777.9
William Byron24.01075043176.2
Aric Almirola19.63634701,18075.2
Alex Bowman21.8996037266.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.22.816222161365.5
Daniel Suarez27.3612031358.5

This weekend is shaping up to be a big duel between Ford and Toyota.  Drivers for these two manufacturers have won the last four races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Toyota drivers taking three of those victories.  As you can see from the table above, there is a pretty heavy dose of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers at the top at Homestead.  In this race one year ago we saw Denny Hamlin dominate the day and lead 137 of the 267 laps en route to the win.  It was his third-career victory at the South Florida oval.  He had the solution for Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney's challenges that afternoon and came away with the win in the Dixie Vodka 400.    

If another driver outside of Hamlin hopes to steal the thunder on Sunday, it could likely be the aforementioned Blaney and Elliott.  The two have been strong on intermediate ovals dating back to the end of last season, and they've both shown a proficiency for the oval in South Florida.  The other group of contenders for the Homestead crown would include names like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.  That trio was among the top performers on the intermediate sized ovals in the closing weeks of 2020.  We'll break down all the contenders, solid plays and sleepers you need to consider to dominate your fantasy leagues at Homestead-Miami Speedway. 

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Denny Hamlin – After a pair of Top-5 finishes to start the season, Hamlin is quickly out to a lead in the driver point standings.  Homestead has been a very successful oval for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota.  Hamlin has three-career victories and 11 Top-10 finishes at the South Florida track.  He won this event one year ago with the most dominant Homestead performance of his career.  Hamlin led 137 laps from the pole that June afternoon in South Florida and held off Chase Elliott to collect that third-career victory at the track.  The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team finished last season strong on the intermediate oval circuit.  Hamlin nabbed one win and three Top 10s in his last four starts on these size ovals.  He should be zeroed-in for a strong performance at one of his favorite tracks.

Kyle Busch – Busch ended 2020 as one of the most dominant drivers on the intermediate oval circuit.  He collected one win (Fort Worth), three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the final five events on 1.5-mile ovals last season.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has come on strong at Homestead-Miami Speedway the last six seasons.  Busch carries a six-race Homestead Top-10 streak into this Sunday's action with two of those being wins and one runner-up finish.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota Camry finished sixth-place in this event one year ago, and based on the numbers that appears to be the floor for this driver at this facility.  Busch is looking to overcome a slow start to the season in the two Daytona events, so he'll be super-motivated to race for the win Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kevin Harvick – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran is fresh off fourth- and sixth-place finishes at Daytona to start the season and he'll look to carry that momentum into South Florida this week.  Harvick is one-time winner at Homestead and he has eight Top-3 finishes for his career at this facility.  In fact, it's a bit surprising that he has just one win at this track when you examine the numbers closely.  The 55-percent Top-5 and 85-percent Top-10 rates are pretty astronomical.  The No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team has cracked the Top 5 in six of their last seven events at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  While the victories have been hard to come by, Harvick seems to always be in contention.  The driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang is the best driver from this manufacturer to get Ford back into victory lane at HMS. 

Joey Logano – This is an oval where the Penske Racing star has been improving greatly over the last few seasons.  Logano won at Homestead in 2018, and he's grabbed four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the intermediate oval.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford led 27 laps here last summer, but ran into some trouble and didn't get the finish he deserved.  Logano was strong down the stretch run of last season on these size ovals with a win at Kansas and Top 10 at Fort Worth.  It would be no surprise at all to see this driver and team hit the ground running this weekend with no practice or qualifying.  Logano is poised to challenge the Top 5 in Sunday's Dixie Vodka 400, and possibly contend for the win.

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

Chase Elliott – Elliott comes to South Florida this weekend looking to erase the disappointment of last weekend's poor finish on the Daytona Road Course.  The Hendrick Motorsports star was the lead contender for that event, so his late-race spin hurt tremendously.  Elliott will be making just his sixth-career start at the 1.5-mile South Florida oval, but that should be of little concern.  The young driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet has two Top 5 and three Top-10s in those five prior efforts.  The average finish checks in at a strong 8.0 across this span.  Elliott turned in his career-best Homestead performance last season with 27 laps led and a runner-up finish in the Dixie Vodka 400.  He's poised to build on that effort this Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski – The driver of the No. 2 Ford was one of the most consistent performers of the second-half of last season on these cookie cutter ovals.  Keselowski raced to two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes down the stretch run of 2020 on these style tracks.  While he didn't grab any victories, he was solidly a Top-5 or Top-10 driver in all of those events and even led a combined 53 laps in those five races.  The first intermediate oval date of 2021 offers Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Keselowski has never been a world-beater here, but he's been a consistent performer in recent years.  Three of his last four starts at the track have yielded Top-10 finishes.  That has boosted what was a lagging career average at HMS to now a 46-percent Top-10 rate.  We no longer race for all the marbles and the championship at Homestead, so with that pressure off Keselowski should have little trouble focusing and bringing home another Top-10 finish.    

Ryan Blaney – The young Penske Racing driver is likely very happy to be leaving Daytona this week.  Blaney had a rough two-race stretch to open the season there and he'll be looking to hit the reset button at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Fortunately for the driver of the No. 12 Ford, this has been a track coming into focus during his brief Cup Series career.  Blaney struggled in his first four starts at HMS, but has posted 11th- and third-place finishes in his last two trips to South Florida.  This event last summer saw the young driver lead a whopping 70 laps of the 267 and finish a brilliant third-place in the Dixie Vodka 400.  That fact dovetails nicely with Blaney's performance at the end of last season on the cookie cutter ovals.  He nabbed seventh-, seventh- and fourth-place finishes in the last three intermediate oval events of 2020. 

Martin Truex Jr. – Another driver looking to overcome a slow start to the 2021 season is Truex and his No. 19 Toyota team.  Fortunately for the Joe Gibbs Racing ace, the Homestead oval has been like home away from home.  He has one victory and two runner-up finishes at HMS in his last four starts.  Over that span, Truex has led over 200 laps and pounded the competition into the pavement.  Since he did most of that dominating with former crew chief, Cole Pearn, we have to take it with a grain of salt to some extent.  Truex and new crew chief, James Small, began to figure these 1.5-mile ovals out down the stretch run of last season.  The team grabbed three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes on these style tracks in the final four intermediate oval events of 2020.  Truex should have little trouble cracking the Top 10 in Sunday's 400-mile battle.  

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Miami & solid upside

Christopher Bell – Last week's big winner will look to turn in an encore performance on the Homestead oval.  While winning may be a long shot, turning in an impressive Top-10 performance is not out of the question at all.  Bell's partnership this season with championship-winning crew chief, Adam Stevens, is already paying dividends and they won't likely stop anytime soon.  Stevens guided Kyle Busch to both his Homestead wins and that knowledge will bolster Bell's chances this Sunday afternoon.  The young driver raced well in his Cup Series debut here last year finishing eighth in the Dixie Vodka 400.  Bell also ended last season strong in this style of racing collecting 10th- and third-place finishes at Kansas and Fort Worth last fall.

Alex Bowman – Bowman finished 2020 strong on these style ovals.  The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet earned three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his final four intermediate oval events of last season.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver's last two starts at Homestead Miami Speedway have yielded ninth- and 18th-place finishes.  Those are not eye-popping to say the least, but they were likely good prep and education going forward for him on this particular oval.  Bowman and this race team were good on the cookie cutter tracks to end last season, so we expect to see some progress Sunday in this 400-mile battle.  The upside that comes with Bowman is well enough to consider deploying him across all fantasy racing formats.      

Kurt Busch – The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is a one-time Homestead winner.  While that victory came way in the past (2002), he's done well over the years to be competitive racing at this oval through its various changes.  Busch's 35-percent Top-10 rate at Homestead doesn't inspire much confidence, but we'd like to point at his performance to close last season on these style ovals.  We believe it's more pertinent and more consistent with what to expect this weekend.  Similar to last season, there will be no practice or qualifying this weekend.  That wrinkle should give Busch an advantage.  He was strong on these ovals to end 2020, including a victory on the similar-banked Las Vegas track in September.  Busch and crew chief Matt McCall should have some good notes to plan their race in the Dixie Vodka 400. 

Kyle Larson – Larson didn't get to race at HMS last year due to his suspension from NASCAR.  Prior to that disciplinary action, this was one of his favorite intermediate ovals in the series.  You can tell that from examining the loop stats embedded in this article.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver's three Top-5 finishes in his last five Homestead starts and 300+ laps led across that span speaks volumes.  The progressive banking allows multi-groove racing, and often Larson is seen racing the high line around this track.  This gives him the momentum to close and make passes when passing can be difficult.  This one facet of his racing tendencies make him successful at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Not everyone feels comfortable out racing next to the wall, but Larson thrives in this style of racing. 

Aric Almirola – Almirola's home state track has held some decent success for the veteran driver since he made the move to Stewart Haas Racing in 2018.  His last three starts at the South Florida track have yielded ninth-, 22nd- and fifth-place finishes.  Almirola knows this track well, and he can carve it up when he has a good race car at this disposal.  The No. 10 SHR team has been consistently giving him that here, and there's a noticeable uptick in his performance at this facility over prior years.  The 12.0 average finish over his last three starts is more than 7 spots better than his career average of 19.6.  Almirola struggled a bit on the intermediate ovals to close 2020, but he should rebound nicely this Sunday afternoon in South Florida.       

Tyler Reddick – The Richard Childress Racing youngster made quite an impression in his debut at this oval last season.  Reddick piloted the team's No. 8 Chevrolet to 3 laps led, a few dozen fastest laps of the 1.5-mile oval and a brilliant fourth-place finish.  It was a surprising performance by last season's rookie sensation.  Reddick will get his second shot at this challenging oval this weekend.  The lessons he and crew chief, Randall Burnett, learned last season should go a long way to giving them a leg up this Sunday.  With no practice and qualifying that data will be invaluable this weekend.  Reddick closed out last season with a Top-15 finish on the intermediate oval in Texas, and that was our last look at this driver and team on a similar sized oval. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Ryan Preece – Despite claiming Top-10 finishes in the season's first two events, it's time to back away from Preece and the No. 37 team this week.  Intermediate ovals were this young driver's arch nemesis to close last season.  Preece labored to just two Top-20 finishes in the final five intermediate oval events of 2020 and posted a 28.0 average finish across the span.  Inconsistency and some crashes led to the lofty average.  Preece has two-career Cup Series starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway and those have been 25th- and 24th-place finishes the last two seasons.  It all seems to point to an underperform tag for this driver and team this week.  For those hoping Preece stays hot coming to South Florida, you need to cool your expectations. 

Ross Chastain – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran had a tough time at the Daytona Road Course this past Sunday.  Chastain got out of shape on the backstretch bus stop and wound up smacking the wall hard.  The damage to the No. 42 Chevrolet would be significant and it ended his day in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 253.  Chastain will look to rebound this weekend in the first intermediate oval event of 2021.  However, it could be a tall task for the new driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet.  Chastain's two-career starts on this oval were 33rd- and 35th-place efforts with small race team, Jay Robinson Racing.  The veteran driver didn't get any Cup Series laps on these style ovals last season without practice and qualifying, so the learning curve could be steep this weekend.

Ryan Newman – The 2021 season has not started well for Newman and the No. 6 Ford team.  A crash and DNF in the Daytona 500 was followed by a 20th-place finish in last week's Daytona Road Course event.  That leaves him 24th-place in the driver standings coming to South Florida.  Newman will look to hit the reset button and challenge the Top 15 this weekend.  However, his intermediate oval performance to close last season says not very likely.  In his last five starts on these ovals, Newman had two Top-15 finishes but also two finishes outside the Top-20.  The average finish stands at a mediocre 19.4.  That nearly mirrors his last five starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway of 17.4.  Newman's start at this track last season was a labored 30th-place finish without practice and qualifying.  No practice laps again this weekend could spell trouble for Newman.    

Chase Briscoe – The rookie is off to a bit of a rough start.  Briscoe's two weekends in Daytona netted 19th- and 32nd-place finishes.  Considering how good he's been on Xfinity Series road courses, the latter finish was very disappointing.  The young driver of the No. 14 Ford will look to get his season back on track this Sunday at Homestead.  This will be his Cup Series debut at the South Florida oval.  Briscoe will not have the luxury of practice laps or qualifying to get tuned to the intermediate oval in a Cup Car.  It's going to be seat-of-the-pants racing for the youngster this week.  The Stewart Haas Racing youngster did have some success at this oval in the Xfinity Series the last couple seasons, and that will help.  However, it may be best to take a wait and see approach to this driver and team for the next few events.

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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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