The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returned to action last weekend with an action-packed few days of practices, qualifying and racing, culminating with the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday afternoon.
The best part? It’s just getting started. For the 60th time, NASCAR comes to Daytona International Speedway for the official start to the 2018 season. 40 drivers entered the track on Sunday, with two securing their starting spots in the Daytona 500 via qualifying attempts.
As the annual pre-Daytona 500 qualifying duels draw near — this Thursday, in fact! — a few drivers are leading the charge when it comes to favorites and sleepers for the first race of the 2018 season. The competition amongst NASCAR’s top teams is as close as it has ever been before, and these drivers may have gotten a head start.
1. Denny Hamlin
On Saturday (Feb. 10), Denny Hamlin posted a selfie on Instagram that suggested a new and improved driver of the No. 11. Following a bumpy ending to 2017 headlined by on-track collisions and off-track arguments, Hamlin seems to have put all the drama in the past and instead chosen to become focused on the task at hand.
The result was a super fast No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry as he earned his best career start in the Great American Race (second). Afterwards, Hamlin’s low-key response balanced his high-end speed, the type of healthy confidence we’ve rarely seen from him.
It’s not the first time the 2016 Daytona 500 champion has entered the race as one of the favorites, but it seems we’re seeing a different Hamlin than in years past. Could he be fully focused on winning the championship this year, and will that quest begin with his second Harley J. Earl trophy?
2. Brad Keselowski
2017 was a good year for Brad Keselowski, earning three trips to Victory Lane. However, this performance did not result in a championship, which means there is still room for improvement. Like Hamlin, Keselowski sent out a social media post — a tweet, in this case — showing his confident, if not blasé, attitude before Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash after a young fan drew the final starting position for him on Saturday.
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) February 10, 2018
Starting last didn’t seem to phase Keselowski. On Sunday, he showed why there was no need for concern. The No. 2 Ford led 43 of the 75 laps en route to his first Advance Auto Parts Clash victory.
While Keselowski has been a favorite to win the 500 many times in the past, he’s never sealed the deal for Team Penske. A third in the 2014 Daytona 500 is his best career finish in the biggest race of the year. Issues have plagued the No. 2 team here over the last few years, running the gambit from engine failures to being involved in the Big One.
But Kes has never had a start quite like he has this past weekend. It seems like the stars may align for the No. 2 car to make its first trip to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500.
3. Jimmie Johnson
For the first time in a while, Jimmie Johnson didn’t compete for the Cup championship after being eliminated from the playoffs due to a rough third round. But the disappointing season that was 2017 has seemingly awakened the No. 48 team, and that should have the field on its toes this season.
Johnson’s got a new paint scheme and new teammates, but it looks like the old seven-time is back. On Sunday, Johnson qualified third for the Daytona 500, giving him a prime spot in Thursday’s qualifying race.
When Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are on it, they are unstoppable. If they can, in fact, return to glory, Johnson is a shoo-in to tie Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, and car owner Jeff Gordon with a third Harley J. Earl trophy. Can the former young gun rise above the rest and reclaim his spot at the top?
Here’s a quick vid of my first few laps today. pic.twitter.com/uSUb8OGmoC
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 10, 2018
4. Kyle Larson
2017 left a bad taste in the mouth of Kyle Larson. The driver from Elk Grove, Calif., tallied a career high in all four categories including four victories, 15 top fives, 20 top 10s, and four poles. Those numbers added up to put Larson as a shoo-in for the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
However, three finishes of 10th or worse in round two of the playoffs led to his elimination. To make things worse, in the final five races, Larson collected four straight DNFs.
The season did end on a high note, though, as Larson led 145 laps in the season finale at Homestead. He ultimately finished third in the event to eventual champion and race winner Martin Truex Jr. and championship runner-up Kyle Busch.
Larson qualified 22nd on Sunday and will start 11th in Duel two on Thursday night. In 2017, Larson was leading the Daytona 500 with less than five laps to go, but when the No. 42 car ran out of fuel, Larson watched his hopes of a Harley J. Earl trophy slip away. Lady Luck wasn’t on Larson’s side in the biggest event of his personal career, either. He was leading the Chili Bowl this year when an engine failure handed the victory over to Christopher Bell.
Speaking of the Chili Bowl, over the offseason Larson made a statement that didn’t sit very well with some members of the NASCAR community, saying that the Chili Bowl is bigger to him than the Daytona 500.
Doesn’t mean I don’t want to win Daytona 500. I was a half lap from winning last year. You can bet that I was heartbroken I lost it. https://t.co/IMPbTAy86y
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) January 11, 2018
5. Kyle Busch
After losing the championship in 2017, Busch enters 2018 with new opportunity on the horizon. In 12 seasons of coming to Daytona in February, Busch has found Victory Lane in all events but two. He has one win in the Advanced Auto Parts Clash, three Can-Am Duel victories and one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series triumph. Busch, however, has never won the XFINITY Series race in February, and he’s never hoisted the Harley J. Earl trophy on Sunday.
Busch has a best finish of third in the Daytona 500 in his career, coming in 2016. And this weekend, Busch is one of the favorites, especially after ending up fastest in opening practice last Saturday (Feb. 10).
In overall Daytona 500 attempts, Busch has the third most in the entire 40-car field. Could the 13th time be the charm?
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) February 10, 2018
6. Erik Jones
Moving from Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, Erik Jones is facing the most fan suspicion of all the drivers who have moved into the series within the last couple of years. After all, he replaced fan favorite 2003 MENCS champion Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car.
The No. 20 team hasn’t fared very well in the Daytona 500 in past years, though. Kenseth, Joey Logano, and Tony Stewart all failed to record a victory in the event behind the wheel. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the third running of the Daytona 500 to find the No. 20 in Victory Lane, when Marvin Panch put the car number across the finish line first in 1961.
Qualifying sixth on Sunday and finishing eighth in the Advanced Auto Parts Clash, Jones has recent consistency on his side. Could he become the eighth driver to earn his first career victory in the Daytona 500? Bear in mind that, after winning Rookie of the Year honors last year on the Cup level, he achieved the rare feat of winning ROTY in all three of NASCAR’s national series. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.
Not what we wanted but we will get the @DEWALTtough Camry tuned up for the 500.
— Erik Jones (@Erik_Jones) February 11, 2018
7. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott came so close to earning his first career Cup victory a couple of times last season and even flirted with battling for the Championship 4 at Homestead. Neither of those things happened, but a driver can only finish second so many times before earning his first victory.
Elliott put up a strong showing on Sunday afternoon in the Clash. Despite being collected in the crash on the final lap, he went down swinging. Elliott qualified 10th on Sunday, ending his streak of two straight poles in the Daytona 500. He’s shown progress in learning how to block lines on restrictor plate tracks when in the lead, so you could say the No. 1 goal for the field is to keep that from happening.
The driver of the No. 9 has competed in four races at Daytona, earning a best finish of 14th in last year’s Daytona 500. Can he deliver the No. 9 to Victory Lane for the first time here since dad Awesome Bill did it in 1987?
— Chase Elliott (@chaseelliott) February 8, 2018
8. Daniel Suarez
After being thrown into the No. 19 after the 2016 season due to Carl Edwards’ sudden departure from the Cup Series, Daniel Suarez entered 2018 with bona fide time to prepare for his second full-time season. Rookie mistakes plagued Suarez in last year’s Daytona 500, including pit stop issues right off the bat. Now that he has two Cup races at Daytona under his belt, look for Suarez to compete for the victory alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
Suarez has been consistent in the speed department so far this Speedweeks. He’s one of the few drivers to finish inside the top 10 in both practices on Saturday and qualify inside the top 10 on Sunday. Suarez will start fourth in the first Duel on Thursday, meaning he could be chasing his second exhibition victory in the series.
Along with chasing his first win, Suarez is chasing history in the Daytona 500. Only one other foreign-born driver has won this race: Mario Andretti in 1967.
Up top to watch The Clash to learn for next week pic.twitter.com/sRzDMAoTkC
— Daniel Suárez (@Daniel_SuarezG) February 11, 2018
9. William Byron
The 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion gets promoted to the Cup Series in 2018. He’ll pilot the famed No. 24 car, made famous by Jeff Gordon. If you look at the two, you almost see a mirror image of a young Gordon in the eyes and driving style of William Byron.
In 2017, Byron won at Daytona in the XFINITY Series in July, which will be great experience as he makes his first start in a MENCS car and first start in the Daytona 500. His career has blasted off quickly, and Byron’s only just getting started. He has the opportunity to break a couple of records should he win on Sunday. Byron could become the first driver to win the Daytona 500 in just his first start in the series.
The rookie has the speed this weekend to win, too, after finishing first in drafting (final practice) on Saturday. Byron will pilot the car in a race for the first time in Thursday’s first duel, where he’ll start third. He could earn his first career exhibition victory in just his first attempt should he do everything correct on Thursday.
Can this youngster pull off the upset in his first start ever?
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) February 11, 2018
10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
2017 was a career year for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who earned his first and second career victories. Superspeedways were good to him, and the same phenomenon could happen for 2018, especially considering his opening weekend performance.
In six Daytona 500 attempts, Stenhouse has a best finish of seventh in 2014. He qualified ninth on Sunday and had strong practice sessions. Already, we’ve seen how well the Roush Yates powerhouses are doing this season for Ford. Like Suarez, Stenhouse was a fixture inside the top 10 during both practices, running eighth and second, respectively.
Stenhouse had a strong run going on Sunday in the Clash before he made the move below the yellow line to pass Kyle Busch. NASCAR showed the black flag to the No. 17, and he had to serve a pass-through penalty, which ultimately ended his chance at winning. But if Stenhouse can keep it above the yellow line on Sunday, don’t count out the No. 17 for the victory.
Next time I’ll turn him crash the 17 car field and then be the arca race cool https://t.co/6wIDgyEfWy
— Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (@StenhouseJr) February 11, 2018