NASCAR Barometer: Victory Lane for Dillon’s No. 3

NASCAR Barometer: Victory Lane for Dillon’s No. 3

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Austin Dillon gave the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team just its second Daytona 500 victory in Sunday's season opener. The traditional start to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series turned out to be anything but on Sunday. The marquee race quickly turned into an attrition exercise with many of the fastest cars throughout the week turned into scrap metal long before the finish was in sight. Dillon kept himself clear of the carnage and was in position to take advantage of a big push from Darrell Wallace Jr. on the final lap. The momentum forced him through Aric Almirola, and gave him the all-important victory, as Wallace and Denny Hamlin battled for second at the line behind him.

Many of the top contenders drove home from Daytona International Speedway knowing that they should have captured better results. The Ford-powered teams were mighty throughout the week, but were frozen out of the top three positions. The real season begins this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, however. The first race of the year on a 1.5-mile oval should offer more answers than Daytona afforded. Are the Fords as strong as they seem? Does Chevrolet really have an aerodynamic advantage? Those questions should be answered this week, and fantasy owners will be scouring the clues learned from Daytona to gain an edge.

UPGRADE

Austin Dillon – Twenty years after celebrating as a child with his grandfather and Dale Earnhardt in Victory Lane, Austin Dillon made the turn into Victory Lane himself by

Austin Dillon gave the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team just its second Daytona 500 victory in Sunday's season opener. The traditional start to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series turned out to be anything but on Sunday. The marquee race quickly turned into an attrition exercise with many of the fastest cars throughout the week turned into scrap metal long before the finish was in sight. Dillon kept himself clear of the carnage and was in position to take advantage of a big push from Darrell Wallace Jr. on the final lap. The momentum forced him through Aric Almirola, and gave him the all-important victory, as Wallace and Denny Hamlin battled for second at the line behind him.

Many of the top contenders drove home from Daytona International Speedway knowing that they should have captured better results. The Ford-powered teams were mighty throughout the week, but were frozen out of the top three positions. The real season begins this week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, however. The first race of the year on a 1.5-mile oval should offer more answers than Daytona afforded. Are the Fords as strong as they seem? Does Chevrolet really have an aerodynamic advantage? Those questions should be answered this week, and fantasy owners will be scouring the clues learned from Daytona to gain an edge.

UPGRADE

Austin Dillon – Twenty years after celebrating as a child with his grandfather and Dale Earnhardt in Victory Lane, Austin Dillon made the turn into Victory Lane himself by winning NASCAR's biggest race with a last-lap pass. It had been a race of attrition, but Dillon picked his way through the carnage to stay on the lead lap and claim victory with a push from another Chevrolet. While the bowtie teams weren't the most powerful throughout the time at Daytona they walked away with the spoils by working together to finish on top. The momentum from scoring the biggest win of the year will be a boost, as he turns his focus on Atlanta Motor Speedway, which is a track where he has yet to score a top-10.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney won the second stage of Sunday's Daytona 500 after holding station at the front for the majority of the first 120 laps. Late contact with Kurt Busch took him out of the front, but he still came home with a top-10 result. It may have been a disappointment, but he should have plenty of confidence. Blaney has a best finish of 18th in two Atlanta starts, and his new ride with Penske Racing should give him a better platform from which to battle. He proved last season that he can win, and this season he could be aiming for a championship run. If he races like he did at Daytona, the rest of the garage should be worried about stopping him.

Kurt Busch – Defending Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch captured the first stage win of the 2018 season in the biggest race of the year. Despite wrecking late in the race and losing a shot at a repeat victory, it was a strong start for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver as he looks to improve upon his playoff effort from 2017. Busch has three victories from 26 Atlanta starts and with no finish worse than 13th at the track in the last eight races, he should be an early contender for fantasy rosters this weekend. He finished seventh in last year's race to back up his victory the week prior. Momentum from Sunday could propel him forward to another top finish this week.

Denny Hamlin – The first mistake on pit road in 2018 was made by Hamlin. The No. 11 driver slid through his pit box on the first stop under caution then incurred a one-lap penalty for servicing the car outside of the box. He lost the draft when he returned to the track, which made his afternoon a long endeavor. Still, he persevered and was in contention in the final laps of the race. Close racing with Wallace saw him finish third in a very strong afternoon for the No. 11. Hamlin has one Atlanta win from the fall of 2012, and after dropping out of last year's race with a mechanical failure, he'll hope to move just two places forward this week.

DOWNGRADE

Chase Elliott – Elliott will have to wait yet another week to score his first Cup series win. The Hendrick Motorsports driver took one of the biggest hits in Daytona while running in the lead of the race. Fantasy owners should be expecting victories from him each week. While Chevrolet wasn't the strongest against Ford and Toyota in Daytona, Elliott was among the contenders right up until his wreck. That first win could very well come this week in Atlanta. In two starts at the track, he has two top-10 finishes with a fifth-place result last season. Elliott came of age as a driver late last season and will have to overcome disappointment yet again after Sunday's disaster.

Kyle Busch – Busch slid his tires on the first stop in Sunday's Daytona 500, which may have contributed to the flat he suffered just a few laps after the field went back to green. The problem left him at the back of the pack with teammate Hamlin, while Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones continued racing at the front. Unfortunately, a second blown tire essentially ended his chances for victory before the first stage was complete. It was a trying afternoon for the No. 18 team, but not winning the Daytona 500 is nothing new for them. They do their best at tracks like this week's. Busch already has two Atlanta victories, and he started third and finished 16th there last season.

Jimmie Johnson – Sunday's crash just at the end of the first stage was Johnson's third wreck in his last four Daytona starts. It was not the kind of week to launch him out of the blocks ahead of the rest. However, while Daytona hasn't been the best for him recently, he does have five Atlanta wins. He won two of the last three races at the track and will be optimistic for his chances this weekend given the new Chevrolet body's aerodynamics. Atlanta is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, and that aerodynamic advantage could give him the chance to respond quickly and positively from another disappointing end to the Daytona 500 for the seven-time series champion.

Brad Keselowski – Entering Sunday's Daytona 500 as the favorite to win served no benefit to Keselowski. His crash in Thursday's qualifying race meant he started at the back of the field, but he was able to work his way to the front on Sunday without much wasted time. Typically the front is the safest place at Daytona, but accidents started at the front of the pack. One caught him during the second stage, and his chances of winning evaporated. Keselowski won in Atlanta last season and a repeat of that performance would put his season back on track. Penske Racing and Ford seem to have the early edge against the competition, and it will be important for Keselowski to make the most of it while it lasts.

William Byron – Sunday was a rough introduction to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series for Byron. The rookie was involved in the first wreck of the afternoon and suffered more contact with the wall after losing a tire in the second stage, too. While he has his entire career ahead of him, Sunday's effort was not what he was hoping for. Hendrick Motorsports now has all of the crew chiefs sitting next to one another in the shop, and that should ensure that Byron's team doesn't get left behind like the organization's fourth teams of the past. Still, Byron will need to overcome the frustration of a disappointing debut with his new team. Fantasy owners should gauge his mental state early on next week in Atlanta.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Darrell Wallace Jr. – Wallace has made a mark for himself already in his short time with Richard Petty Motorsports. He was quick and drove smartly like a veteran every time he was on track, including the late crash he successfully avoided while racing for the win on Sunday. That wreck put him in position to push Dillon to the win while he captured second place ahead of Hamlin for himself. It's hard to believe that Wallace was unsure of his racing future less than a year ago, but it isn't inconceivable that he'll be a contender many more times yet this season. His best finish in three Atlanta starts in the Xfinity series was 13th last season, and his confidence must be at an all-time high at this moment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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