Who will become the 2018 Daytona 500 champion?
It’s hard to pick a winner in any NASCAR race, let alone a restrictor plate race. There are literally 35-36 cars in the 40-car field that can stay in the draft and have a decent shot at winning as long as they can make it to the end.
But some drivers stand out among their peers.
Brad Keselowski is definitely a favorite for Sunday’s race. With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., his old student Keselowski has now taken on the role of the best plate racer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Team Penske’s plan, as evidenced by the Advance Auto Parts Clash and the first Duel, is simple, yet effective: hog the top three and take away momentum from anybody trying to get around them in the other line.
It wasn’t flawless; Keselowski ended up with a torn-up racecar at the end of the Duel. But it did lead to a one-two finish for Team Penske.
It’s not the end of the world if you go to a back up after the Duels, either, as there’s two days’ worth of practices and garage work to get it into shape for the race. The Fords in general seem to be faster in the draft than the Chevrolets and Toyotas.
Alex Bowman is a very interesting sleeper pick. The pole sitter has never really been a standout restrictor plate racer, but he’s probably had a lot of help at learning the ropes this winter from Earnhardt and teammate Jimmie Johnson. We know the No. 88 is fast, but is it really faster in the draft than the Penske Fords or if the Toyota drivers find each other? He has a lot of eyes on him, considering his best career plate finish before Sunday is just 13th.
Those Toyota teammates are going to be intriguing to watch on their own. In the late stages of the Clash, the four Toyotas in the race stayed nose-to-tail of one another, hinting at a last-lap assualt. But it never came, and Martin Truex Jr. went out of line from the Joe Gibbs Racing cars.
Was there a miscommunication? Was Truex just trying things out for Sunday? Or is there maybe a bit of tension between Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, as has been playfully hinted at in the past by the two parties?
Regardless, they are all going to need to get on the same page like they did in 2016 if they want to return to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.
How crash-filled will this weekend be?
Last season’s Speedweeks was among the most destructive ever seen in the history of organized racing in Daytona. Maybe the years with the old beach course, where drivers often wrecked or got stuck due to hitting routs in the sand, were more violent, but simply comparing that to the 2.5-mile modern-day stadium speaks volumes.
NBC Sports reported following the 500 last year that 106 cars, between the Clash, Duels and the three national series races, were involved in wrecks. And that doesn’t even includethe ARCA race.
35 of the 40 cars that began the 2017 Daytona 500 ended up getting a least a little bit of sheet metal damage. Kurt Busch won the race in a torn-up Ford that lost its rear view mirror with 20 laps to go. It’s looking like this year will be more of the same.
The new aero package in the Cup Series has led to a lot of unstable pack racing so far. William Byron spun in the first Duel due to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. simply side-drafting off his left side. These cars look like weird, skewed out monstrosities that skid around like they’re on ice when they aren’t single file. It’s hard to drive, and when you factor in all of the young, impatient talent in the field, we’re going to have a lot of yellows in the races this weekend.
Who ends up on top in the Camping World Truck Series?
The truck race at Daytona is always one of the most unpredictable of the weekend. With only two restrictor plate races for the trucks and the amount of new drivers entering and leaving the series every year, it’s hard to rely on statistics to determine favorites. The last seven race winners in this race are about as diverse a lineup one can find in motorsports: Michael Waltrip, John King, Johnny Sauter twice, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.
If there are favorites in this field, it’s the veteran drivers. Sauter is a two-time Daytona race winner, and a win here would break a tie with Todd Bodine for the most of all time. Matt Crafton has done everything in the Truck Series, but win a restrictor plate race, but his vast experience in trucks should give him a bit of an advantage over his younger colleagues.
One interesting driver to watch will be David Gilliland. He didn’t start a NASCAR national series race at all last season, as he’s been focusing on helping develop his son Todd. He’ll be returning to NASCAR on Friday night in a big way, racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the organization’s flagship No. 4 Toyota. Gilliland is a solid plate racer; the 2007 Daytona 500 pole sitter, six of his eight Cup Series top 10s have come at either Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway. This is only a one-race deal for Gilliland, but if he performs well, he may be able to race in the other three races his son can’t compete in before turning 18.
Who will prevail in the battle between the Cup regulars and the XFINITY stars?
The XFINITY Series race at Daytona has always been a bit of an all-star race. Before the series began in 1982, this was one of the few national races for NASCAR lower divisions, and Cup drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. dominated.
Saturday’s race will be no exception. 2016 race winner Chase Elliott comes down to race from the Cup Series, and he’ll be joined by Joey Logano (the only former Daytona 500 champion in the field), Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola. All of these competitors are either former Daytona winners, former XFINITY Series champions or Kyle Larson.
But the series regulars will be putting up a fight. Ryan Reed is the defending race winner and has two wins in the past three iterations of this race. Elliott Sadler has four top-five finishes in the past seven restrictor plate races. William Byron drove Tyler Reddick‘s No. 9 to victory in the July race, while Reddick himself has won at Daytona in the Truck Series in the past.
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