NASCAR Barometer:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Claims Daytona 500 Crown

NASCAR Barometer: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Claims Daytona 500 Crown

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series officially got underway last weekend with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. winning the longest Daytona 500 in history after late crashes and restarts pushed the contest 12 laps past its advertised distance. The race started cleanly, going nearly two-thirds of the scheduled distance before the first caution came out for an on-track incident. That was just the calm before the storm, though. When all was said and done there had been 52 lead changes, eight cautions, and two overtime restarts. Stenhouse led 10 laps and was a nose ahead of Joey Logano when a final crash triggered the finish, giving him his first Daytona 500. 

With the stage now set for the 2023 season to really get rolling, the series now heads west for a three-race stint before returning to the east coast. First up on that journey is the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Kyle Larson won last year's race at the venue, which was the first visit to the track since 2020. The next few races will be an excellent opportunity for fantasy players to see which teams and drivers will establish themselves as the top contenders for the championship battle.

UPGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Aggressive moves in the final two restarts put Stenhouse a nose ahead of the competition when it mattered most to earn the biggest victory of his career. Sunday's Daytona 500 win was his first victory since 2017, which also happened to be at Daytona. It was also

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series officially got underway last weekend with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. winning the longest Daytona 500 in history after late crashes and restarts pushed the contest 12 laps past its advertised distance. The race started cleanly, going nearly two-thirds of the scheduled distance before the first caution came out for an on-track incident. That was just the calm before the storm, though. When all was said and done there had been 52 lead changes, eight cautions, and two overtime restarts. Stenhouse led 10 laps and was a nose ahead of Joey Logano when a final crash triggered the finish, giving him his first Daytona 500. 

With the stage now set for the 2023 season to really get rolling, the series now heads west for a three-race stint before returning to the east coast. First up on that journey is the Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Kyle Larson won last year's race at the venue, which was the first visit to the track since 2020. The next few races will be an excellent opportunity for fantasy players to see which teams and drivers will establish themselves as the top contenders for the championship battle.

UPGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Aggressive moves in the final two restarts put Stenhouse a nose ahead of the competition when it mattered most to earn the biggest victory of his career. Sunday's Daytona 500 win was his first victory since 2017, which also happened to be at Daytona. It was also the first for JTG Daugherty since 2014 when AJ Allmendinger took the team to Victory Lane at Watkins Glen, as was it the first for a single-car team in the Daytona 500 since Trevor Bayne won the race in 2011. It was a perfect start to the season for Stenhouse and the small team. They now have one foot in the championship playoffs, and can focus on developing speed and consistency for the championship campaign. The first step toward that comes this week at Fontana where Stenhouse finished 10th last season.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski used lapped cars to perfectly time the move that would put him at the front of the field to capture the first stage victory of the 2023 season. That move established him as one of the cars to beat the rest of the race. In fact, Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher led a combined 74 laps on their way to the finish with only the crash that ended the race knocking Keselowski down the finishing order. It was a great start to the season for RFK Racing as they seek to continue the improvements they made last season despite the last-lap crash. After going winless in 2022 Keselowski will be hungry for a trip to Victory Lane in 2023. This coming week's trip to California will give fantasy players a better idea of where he is on that journey, too. He is a prior winner at the track but didn't fare well last season after a late crash. 

Ross Chastain – Chastain made an aggressive move to get to the front late in the second stage. That, and heavy pushes from Joey Logano, propelled him to the second stage win of the day in a photo-finish with Alex Bowman at the line. Chastain is looking to repeat and improve on the breakout year he had in 2022, and his segment win Sunday is early evidence that those goals could be within his reach. He persevered through the rest of the race distance, coming home ninth to in a nice start to his 2023 season. This week's race at Auto Club Speedway may be a better measure of Chastain's potential in the coming year, though. He has no top-10 finishes from his four prior starts, only finishing on the lead lap there once. Another top finish this week would be an even stronger statement than his Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch – Before the overtime restarts it was Busch who was in position to potentially win his first Daytona 500. The former champion took his No. 8 machine from a pit road penalty all the way back to the front as the miles clicked toward the finish. Were is not for a spin from Daniel Suarez Busch might have been left to fight new teammate Austin Dillon to the checkered flag. However, the pair split the front row for the resulting restart, and their attempt to rejoin in line lost them the momentum they needed to lead the field to the finish. After that it was a fight for survival with Busch left without a teammate as he climbed as far back toward the front as possible, ultimately finishing 19th after being caught in the final crash of the day. It was a promising first race with his new team, and Busch may be in for more this week at Auto Club Speedway where he has four prior wins and the No. 8 was the dominant car last year. 

Joey Logano – Logano nearly converted his win in the Duels into a sweep with the victory on Sunday, too. The Team Penske driver was among the leaders all afternoon leading 12 total laps and taking fourth-place finish in the second stage. Logano pushed his way into contention for the win through the final restarts but came up a few feet short of the victory when the final crash ended the racing. Despite missing out on another Daytona 500 victory, Logano leaves the track with a head start in the points. He said before the season started that his goal each season is simply to win the championship, and Sunday's points haul is a good way to start that title defense. The team will refocus their aim for a win this week at Fontana where Logano has seven top-fives from 15 career starts. He led 15 laps in the race last season on his way to one of those top-five finishes.

DOWNGRADE

Chase Elliott – The Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets were fast at Daytona and Elliott worked with his teammates to remain at the front of the race through most of the first two stages. He missed out on stage points after the Chevrolet contingent was overtaken by the Fords after pit stops, and then things got worse when he was taken out in the first caution for contact of the day. Elliott was an innocent bystander when Tyler Reddick lost control and caused the first multi-car wreck of the day. The damage was too severe for him to continue, too. Daytona is typically unpredictable and this difficult start to the year shouldn't deter fantasy players from Elliott. He has a hole to dig out of in the standings and will set his mind to doing that this week in California where he has three top-10s from six career starts.

Tyler Reddick – Reddick's maiden outing with 23XI Racing team ended against the wall Sunday at Daytona. It wasn't the start to the relationship the organization was hoping for, nor was it representative of what the true potential probably is. The car seemed to have the speed that would keep it in the top 10 throughout the afternoon, but Reddick got loose in in the second stage and spun into the outside wall. It was the first caution for an on-track incident of the afternoon and made Reddick just the second driver to exit the race. While the afternoon was not what Reddick was hoping for, Daytona can be feast or famine. Fantasy players will get a better look at this new pairing this week in California. Reddick has two prior starts at this track with an average finish of 17.5. However, he led 90 laps there last season before finishing 24th after a late-race crash.

Austin Dillon – Circumstances were shaping up well for Richard Childress Racing and Austin Dillon as the laps ticked down to the scheduled finish Sunday in Daytona. Dillon found himself right behind new teammate Kyle Busch in the closing miles out front ad defending the lead from the rest of the field. A late caution just before the finish undid that dream scenario, though. The restart following that caution split the teammates across the front row, and the pair lost momentum and the lead as the pack's energy rebuilt. Dillon was subsequently collected in the next crash, taking him completely out of the running one restart too soon. The 33rd-place classification was not a true reflection of his day and leaves him out of touch in the points after just one race. Dillon will need to repeat last year's Fontana finish of second to quickly close that gap.

Erik Jones – Another driver left wanting more from Sunday's start to the 2023 season was Erik Jones and his new-look Legacy Motor Club team. The No. 43 machine entered the race with potential and on the heels of a return to Victory Lane the season prior. However, the day ended early in the first crash of the afternoon. Daytona should have been a place Jones and the team could grab an early head start on their 2023 aims, but they now head west outside of the top 30 in points. Fantasy players will want to pay close attention to Jones this week, though. He raced well at Fontana last season, finishing third and leading 18 laps after starting on the front row. A repeat of that finish this week would go a long way in helping him dig out of the hole Sunday's crash dug for him. Jones has two other top-10s at that track from his five career tries.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ryan Blaney –  Sunday's Daytona 500 wasn't a good one for the favorites. Blaney, like Elliott, was a victim of the first caution of the day. Blaney had been racing steadily at the front of the field, making laps on his way to the finish in position to go for the win. His chances for that victory evaporated when Reddick lost control and sent the No. 12 spinning into the outside wall, though. Blaney was able to drive his car to pit road for repairs, but the damage was heavy enough to leave him hanging onto the back of the pack for the rest of the race. However, by not giving up and continuing to make laps Blaney advanced all the way back into the top 10 at the finish to salvage a valuable points day for the championship marathon. That perseverance could be the difference maker for Blaney's championship hopes as this long season progresses.

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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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