Alex Bowman kicked off his tenure as the full-time driver of the No. 88 by putting his hot rod on the pole. But even with that, people are still referring to him as “Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement.” What will Bowman need to do to get out of Earnhardt Jr.’s shadow?
Davey Segal: Alex Bowman is a good dude. He paid his dues, opted to remain in the backseat of Hendrick Motorsports for a year in order to receive this opportunity, one which was not given to him. It was earned. But Dale Jr. is one of those “larger than life” figures in not just NASCAR, but sports. When you ask a sports fan on the street to name a NASCAR driver, odds are they’ll say Junebug, even though he’s not full-time anymore. The only way Bowman will crawl out of Dale Jr.’s shadow is if he performs better than his predecessor did: win a championship. Simple, right?
John Haverlin: To break out of Dale Jr.’s shadow, Bowman needs to grow his brand and show off as much of his personality as possible. He should use social media to his advantage and post things from his personal life on Twitter or Instagram often. This should help fans get to see what his life is like. It’s not enough to post about how thankful he is for Dale Jr. and Rick Hendrick taking a chance on him. Yes, that’s important, but now that Bowman’s in the spotlight, he needs to live it up. Oh, and winning races should help too.
Phil Allaway: Honestly, Bowman would need the ability to control minds for that to happen. Much like Dale Jr. himself, he’ll never escape it. All he can do is be the best that he can. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 is just step No. 1. He needs to be the whole package.
Matt McLaughlin: The same way that Dale Jr. got out of the shadow of his more famous father. He never fully did. It just isn’t possible. In this case, with Bowman there’s no heredity involved. My guess is that the comparisons will be less frequent and apt.
A storyline that has dominated headlines throughout Speedweeks has been the elimination of the ride height rule. This has resulted in ill-handling race cars and single-file racing in The Clash. Will this rule positively or negatively impact the Daytona 500?
Segal: Goodness, I sure hope the 500 doesn’t look like some of the racing we’ve seen in the last seven days or so. Single-file racing here and there is going to happen in big-time auto racing. We understand that. But after months of build-up to the biggest race of the season (which happens to be the first as well) having a dud would be a huge hit to NASCAR’s image.
It’s a problem they don’t need at this point of growth for the sport. But to answer the question: I say neither. The ride height rule won’t change anything drastically positively or negatively. It’ll just make for some debate about ride heights later in 2018.
Haverlin: I like the no ride height rule at Daytona. Yes, the second half of “The Clash” was a single-file parade. But when I think back to the race, I think about how loose the cars were in a two or three-wide pack. That’s what we saw in the first half of the event, and it was entertaining. With a 40-car pack, I think we’ll see less single-file racing simply because the field won’t be 17 cars. There will also be more dicey moments as the drivers manage to hold a tight steering wheel.
Allaway: Hard to say. The racing will likely be different with 40 cars on track as opposed to 17. In recent years, there’s been a fair amount of single-file racing in restrictor plate events from time to time. Last year’s Daytona 500 had a good amount of single-file racing towards the end. The 500 is not quite like the Clash or even the Duels. If you get long runs early on, you could see small packs break away. That won’t be the case by the finish, though since it will be dark.
McLaughlin: My opinion of plate racing is so low and I loathe this form of racing so badly there’s no way any rule can have a negative effect on my opinion. Just as long as 43 … er, that’s another topic. As long as 40, er, 39 men and Danica, start the race and all 40 drivers go home safe to their families afterwards, that’s the best possible scenario for a plate race in my book.
Brad Keselowski kicked off Speedweeks with a win in The Clash, the first one for the 2012 series champion. He’s also been looked upon as the best restrictor plate racer for the better part of the last five seasons. Is Keselowski the driver to beat on Sunday?
Segal: I don’t see how he isn’t. Starting spots at Daytona have come to matter more than they have in the past decade or so, but if there’s a driver who can slice and dice his way up to the front from the rear, it’s driver No. 2. He’s the best blocker up front, he’s the best drafter in the pack, and he’s the closest thing we have to a modern day Dale Earnhardt on plate tracks. Yeah, I said it. Don’t @ me.
Haverlin: Yes, Keselowski is the driver to beat on Sunday. His dominance at Daytona and Talladega is almost Earnhardt-esque. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t already won a 500.
Allaway: If the race ultimately plays out where Keselowski can get to the front and have teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano as his blockers, yes. That is ultimately what happened on Sunday in the Clash. Teammates are quite important and he’s got two good ones. However, we’re talking about a restrictor plate race here. Anything under the sun can happen.
McLaughlin: Well, the Fords, even with the oldest body style of the sport’s big three car manufacturers, seem to have an advantage on the plate tracks right now. That’s while the Chevys and the Yodas have the advantage on the downforce tracks that compromise most of the schedule. Keselowski drives a Ford so he has that going for him.
But again, plate racing is too much of a crapshoot. He could get wrecked on the pace laps. My fearless prediction is that Chase Elliott wins the 500 to score his first Cup win and to reignite the “Young Guns” storyline NASCAR’s been relentlessly pushing. (Though in light of Wednesday’s tragedy in Florida, I hope they don’t use that exact term.)
I also think Elliott wins by less than a tenth of a second. That has everyone spending the next ten years debating whether NASCAR gave him a big plate or some other mechanical advantage to start the year off on a “Happy Shiny People” note.
With the advent of new rules for pit stops, including five men over the wall and standardized pit guns, what can we expect out of pit stops for the Daytona 500? How will teams adjust throughout the race?
Segal: Get ready for some hard-hitting analysis… I have absolutely no freaking clue. I think we’ll see more of an impact at upcoming races such as Atlanta and Fontana, where pit stops and strategy mean more than they do at Daytona. But with that being said, we’ve seen the 500 come down to pit strategy as recently as last season, as it turned into a fuel mileage race. Stops will be slower and crewmen will be relied upon more. But at the end of the day, I don’t think one team will wind up with a distinct advantage. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just changing it a bit.
Haverlin: The new, five-man pit stops are an interesting debate. On social media, some folks thought the stops were noticeably slow (myself included) while others thought it wasn’t much of a big deal. I think the stops are awkward to watch, just because the choreography is different. I’m guessing we’ll see more uncontrolled tires on Sunday. Also, I’m not sure there is really a way for teams to adjust throughout the race. Pit stops should be consistent, so if I were a crew chief, I’d want my team’s first stop to be just as good as the last one.
Allaway: You’re going to see a transition period that could last half the season as teams get used to the new setup. I would not be shocked if one team truly figures things out and stomps everyone in the pits for a couple of months. Think then-Penske Racing South in 1993. 16-second pit stops back then were viewed as nearly impossible, but Rusty Wallace’s crew did it on a regular basis. That helped him claim 10 wins that year. While I don’t see anyone getting to double digits this year, it could very well be the X factor.
McLaughlin: These teams have been training for this change for awhile and they are very good at what they do. It might seem counterintuitive but my guess is that most of the crews will do fine on the first few stops. But when the pay window is opening late in the race and cars pit under green, needing to leave quickly to stay with the pack they pitted with, someone will fumble as badly as Tom Brady did in the Patriots final Super Bowl drive.