Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy has a few drivers who you might not look at twice most of the time… but you should this week.
One of the fun things about restrictor-plate racing is that it puts teams on a much more level playing field than other tracks. That means the drivers who shine aren’t necessarily the ones most fans expect. Instead, any driver who can dance with the draft has a chance to see Victory Lane. Here are my picks for some drivers and teams who might not be in the spotlight every weekend but who just might land in it during this week’s Daytona action.
When evaluating a driver’s performance at any track, there are two things to look at: recent performance and sustained performance over time. There’s also a certain amount of listening to a gut instinct. After his performance in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, Truex has inserted himself into the conversation about who to watch. He led the most laps of anyone in the field in that race, and he took that lead with a power move when nobody would go with him. Furniture Row Racing uses Earnhardt Childress power, some of the best in the business when it comes to plate racing.
Truex doesn’t have a great Cup record at Daytona; he’s got just one top-10 finish (though he has an XFINITY Series win), but he looked so strong on Saturday that it’s hard to ignore. It’s a bit like Jamie McMurray in 2010. He wasn’t even in the conversation about the Great American Race until his performance in the season-opening exhibition. If you paid attention that night, there was something in McMurray’s run that suggested he could be a force to contend with. Truex’s run Saturday night had a similar “pay attention” feel to it. He’s worth keeping an eye on this week.
Mears has always been a sort of solid journeyman driver who will deliver a solid performance, but he’s more than that on the plate tracks. Mears has always been a good plate racer with more than his share of bad luck. He’s capable of running at the front of the field, and he pushed Jimmie Johnson to his first Daytona 500 win.
Mears’ recent performance on the plate tracks is equally impressive. In 2014, only Denny Hamlin had a better average finish in the four races at Daytona and Talladega. Mears had three top-10 finishes in those four races and finished no lower than 14th. He also ran fourth in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited. Like Truex, Mears has ECR power. Also like Truex, he doesn’t have the luxury of a teammate for built-in drafting help, and as both he and Truex saw on Saturday, it’s hard to get someone to work with you late in the race if they see you as a threat. That’s both flattering and frustrating, but at the end of the day, if the help is there, Mears is capable of a top-5 run… and maybe more.
Cassill is one of those drivers who always leaves you wondering what he might really be capable of in top equipment, because he does a yeoman’s job with one of the most underfunded teams in the garage. In 2014, Cassill finished 12th in the Daytona 500, 11th at Talladega in the spring and fourth at ‘Dega in the fall. He wasn’t quite fast enough to win, but he let everyone know he was there.
This year, an upgraded Hillman Smith Racing could provide Cassill with the opportunity to improve even further on his outstanding plate performance of a year ago. The team changes to ECR power this season, a solid step above the program they used in the past. Will Cassill be standing in the winner’s circle on Sunday? That’s a lofty assumption – and probably unrealistic – but can he get some air time for running with the best of them? Certainly he can.
With a pair of restrictor-plate wins, Ragan is the most accomplished driver on this list when it comes to the superspeedways. It’s hard to dispute his talent in the draft, especially when one of those wins came with his current team, Front Row Motorsports (Talladega in the spring of 2013), which lacks the resources of Roush Fenway Racing, where he won at Daytona in July of 2011.
Ragan has a drafting partner in teammate David Gilliland, with whom he paired up with for that 1-2 finish at Talladega, and the two have shown that they can make a power move if they need to. Ragan’s 2014 superspeedway season wasn’t as torrid as 2013, but he’s still a skilled plate racer and could play the spoiler at some point this week.
Running on a limited schedule, Leavine Family Racing has to make the most of the races, and the Daytona 500 is a good venue for the team to showcase what they’ve got to offer sponsors. McDowell has just two career top-10 finishes, both of them at Daytona. He finished ninth running for Phil Parsons Racing in 2013 and seventh for LFR last year (in the Coke Zero 400). That’s a pretty solid recent record.
McDowell, like Cassill, probably doesn’t quite have what it takes to win. But he does have the ability to get his small team a memorable run and a strong finish. For a team that rarely gets even a passing mention on the television broadcast, time spent in the top 10 is gold, and McDowell could strike a vein of it this week.
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