The NASCAR season is finally here. Yeah, it took long enough; it’s been nearly three months since the conclusion to the 2017 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But now, 2018 has arrived. In what was an unusually busy offseason for teams, featuring many last-minute changes, the time has finally come for stock car racing to hit the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
But as the stories change with the start of the season, there is still one that is constant across the sport: Danica Patrick’s retirement, which is rapidly approaching.
For the sport’s lone female driver, the Daytona 500 will mark the end of a roller coaster NASCAR career. Patrick will always be remembered as being a marketing mogul away from the track, and it has helped her become more prepared for life after racing.
Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., is looking to get back his restrictor plate magic from 2017. With his first two triumphs coming last year, he enters the Daytona 500 as a favorite for the win. But there are a few folks who might be able to perform just as well — if not better than he did — in the four plate races this year.
Q: What will happen if Danica Patrick wins the Daytona 500? – Jennifer R., Charlotte
A: For starters, NASCAR would probably receive more attention than it has in a long, long time.
The Internet will explode if Patrick wins the Great American Race. It would follow that not only could a female racer be successful in NASCAR, but also that her career would culminate with a triumph in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Let’s take into consideration the equipment that she is in. Patrick is competing in the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports, partnering with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who last worked with Michael Waltrip in the 2013 Daytona 500.
Waltrip himself ran his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in last year’s Daytona 500, also piloting a car for Premium Motorsports. He managed to finish eighth, capping off a roller coaster career of his own. Waltrip’s top 10 remains Premium Motorsports’ lone result in the top portion of the field to this date.
Thanks to the equalizer of the restrictor plate, combined with Patrick’s respectable ability at Daytona, she could very well be fighting for the win come Sunday. In 11 starts at Daytona, she has a pair of top 10s.
Should Patrick triumph, it would go down as one of the most storybook endings to a NASCAR career in recent history. Imagine if this woman, who is essentially being forced to retire due to a lack of a quality team and sponsor being able to come together, wins at this track. Imagine the raw emotion we would see from her, especially since she is being backed by GoDaddy for what she is calling the “Danica Double,” in which she will also compete one last time in the Indianapolis 500.
It would raise the question of whether or not she should be retiring to begin with. Her national (and to an extent international) stardom could be enough to keep her around for at least the plate races going forward.
It would also make her ask herself how and why a win didn’t come sooner. There will be so many questions that are raised if she wins the sport’s biggest event.
But for now, her eyes are on Thursday’s second of two Can-Am Duels. She’ll start 14th in the 20-car field, hoping to put herself in a solid starting spot for her final NASCAR race.
Q: Who can stand out on the plate tracks like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did in 2017? – Billy A.
A: Stenhouse’s pair of plate wins last year certainly took the sport by surprise. He put himself into a prime position entering the playoffs, and he re-established Roush Fenway Racing as one of NASCAR’s strongest restrictor plate organizations.
Could the same thing happen this year? Well, the No. 17 team will certainly be a force to be reckoned with once again. Stenhouse’s average finish at Daytona is 18th, but he has a pair of top fives, including the win, over his last three contests at the 2.5-mile oval.
Another driver who can surprise is Paul Menard, who begins his stint with Wood Brothers Racing this weekend. He ran strong throughout the duration of both of last year’s races at Daytona, resulting in a pair of top fives. Combine Menard’s prowess at plate tracks with Ford’s impressive 2017 season at the superspeedways and he could become a two-time Cup winner.
JTG-Daugherty Racing also has a reputation of running strong at Daytona over the years. The two-car organization is gearing up for the 2018 season, hoping to perform better than it did last year. It was a miserable 36 races, expansion dragging down the success of both programs as the team struggled to adapt.
But growing pains didn’t stop JTG from running well at Daytona in 2017. Lead driver AJ Allmendinger finished third in last year’s season-opener and eighth in the second Daytona event, with Chris Buescher also earning a top 10 in the July race.
With Allmendinger continuing to lead the way, this team could sneak up and bring home a Sunday win to lock itself into the 2018 playoffs.