NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will Hendrick Motorsports Keep It Straight in Daytona 500?

Will Hendrick Motorsports Keep It Straight in Daytona 500?

The dubious tone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. during Sunday (Feb. 19)’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway spoke volumes about how the rest of Speedweeks may go for Hendrick Motorsports.

Despite sweeping the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500, single-car speed doesn’t seem to blend well with drafting. This was boldly shown in the Clash when Jimmie Johnson lost his No. 48 Chevrolet twice off Turn 4. He was the only driver to spin on his own in the 75-lap event.

Unfortunately for the four-car stable, Sunday wasn’t a first. In fact, since last year’s Daytona 500, Hendrick cars have spun solo on plate tracks eight times across four cars and five drivers.

Why would the sport’s most successful team be the lone wolf in handling issues on tracks that don’t necessarily require much handling to begin with? It sure is no cinch issue.

2016 Daytona II CUP Jimmie Johnson John Harrelson NKP
Jimmie Johnson has five top fives in the last eight Daytona races. (Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

As such, viewers may be not be surprised by what they see this weekend in Daytona. For once, you may see the No. 48 team opt to partake in drafting practice instead of playing its traditional head game of knowing what it has.

But before you panic and start aiming toward Atlanta Motor Speedway next week, you must find relief from Sunday qualifying. Following the four-hour practice on Friday, it seemed clear that Ford performance would rise up and kick some arse atop the qualifying sheets. That was semi-true, with Ford taking third and fourth with Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. However, Chevrolet and HMS busted the Ford-Toyota party to take another 500 pole

In what has become a rather throwback Speedweeks, HMS may be the ones to win the manufacturer race on the high banks on Sunday.

If only they can keep it straight.

Which Underdog Is Most Likely to Contend in the Daytona 500?

It just isn’t Speedweeks at Daytona without a handful of underdog stories to watch. Not only the could-you-imagine stories, but also the keep-an-eye-on-them stories. The ones that could realistically happen.

In this case, there are two types of underdog stories: the driver and the team.

For drivers, there is a healthy group of rookie drivers who will have class-A shots at contending in the Great American Race, starting with Daniel Suarez. The Mexican driver will likely have the fastest group of teammates in the race with Joe Gibbs Racing. They almost perfected Sunday’s Clash before, you know.

In the same breath, you can add Erik Jones. He will surely be included in the six-car JGR-and-affiliate line ready to take the 500 by storm for a second straight year. Despite having multiple issues getting through technical inspection, which led to less track time, Jones ranked 20th in qualifying, while teammate Martin Truex Jr. was fifth.

2016 Atlanta NXS Brendan Gaughan smile vertical Russell LaBounty NKP
Brendan Gaughan was one feel-good story, making the 500 in his Mark Beard-owned Chevrolet. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

Wrapping up the rookies in fast cars, Ty Dillon is a tale of both underdog driver and underdog team. Topping all rookies with a 12th-place qualifying effort, Dillon and Germain Racing put their names in the hat for Sunday. The single-car team that finished sixth in the 500 two years ago with Casey Mears will have extra incentive to race hard in the first of only four plate races in 2017.

Onto the teams, it may be easier just to list the ones that could – and have proven to be able to – contend on Sunday: Tommy Baldwin Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports, JTG Daugherty Racing and Leavine Family Racing.

Picking out one, Front Row returns to two veteran drivers for the first time since 2014 with Landon Cassill and David Ragan. With a lack of beginner’s struggle, the Ford team will have reliable men behind the wheel. Though the team’s Talladega win in 2013 may be anecdotal, if you factor in their gains from 2016, it is in better shape for this year’s 500 than any other before.

What New XFINITY Talent Will Shine in Daytona?

Look out 2017, the XFINITY Series is here to play.

Though Saturday’s Powershares QQQ 300 at Daytona will still have the likes of Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne, the No. 2 series in NASCAR has much to be desired by the young fanbase.

Leading the fray of hot talent unable to consume alcohol is William Byron. The record-breaking Camping World Truck Series driver will enter 2017 with JR Motorsports for his first XFINITY season. NASCAR nation may brush the so-called next big things with too much color, but by most accounts, Byron is expected to get with the program.

Behind the 19-year-old, perhaps for now, are fellow 2016 Truck Series drivers Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick and Spencer Gallagher. Among them sits 212 starts in Trucks and only 12 in XFINITY, which outlines the next generation of XFINITY talent like never before.

On the other side of the ladder is Michael Annett. This guy spent five years in XFINITY from 2009 to 2013 before moving up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with Tommy Baldwin Racing and HScott Motorsports for the last three years.

Considering his lackluster results with backmarker teams in Cup, Annett was a surprising name to see added to the JRM lineup in 2017. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, since teammate Justin Allgaier pulled a nearly identical trio of transitions a year earlier.

These drivers, either new or returning, will all share the track in Saturday’s season opener. Must they work with a veteran to get up front or could they do it on their own? (Places popcorn in microwave)

Will Stages Fit Truck Series Better Than Caution Clock?

With all three series being overhauled with the stage format announced in the offseason, the Truck Series is the one with the best perspective.

Coming off a season with the caution clock, which mandated a caution after a predetermined amount of time if one didn’t occur naturally, the series will now tackle two pauses in the action, with playoff and regular-season points on the line.

Will the stages fit the series better than the clock? If you’re looking for fan feedback, you’ll find most of them were against the timed periods. Though it was only used an average of twice a race, there seemed to be a mutual feeling that is just wasn’t right.

What we saw on the track was similar. Were the drivers really racing harder against the clock? From the outside, it looked like an already-sizzling show being given a small addition – like a hot, melty pizza that was given a sprinkle of oregano.

For 2017, these stages are more like a layer of pepperoni, for those who like pepperoni. A race-by-race format that leads all the way to Homestead-Miami Speedway. For a series that has shorter races and a smaller playoff field, it will expand the average green-flag run versus last year and will bolster the number of drivers with a chance at the playoffs.

Being perfectly aligned with the Cup Series for the first time in years, 2017 is bound to be a year of resurgence for the Trucks.

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