As a motorsports nerd, I anxiously await the beginning of each NASCAR season right after the final checkered flag in November. Thankfully football fills up a lot of my time in between so the wait isn’t excruciating, but here we are: the Daytona 500 is this Sunday.
So what will we see in this year’s Great American Race?
Personally, I hope it’s nothing like Sunday’s Busch Clash exhibition race. If you’re a fan of demolition derbies, the Busch Clash was right up your alley. A total of 18 cars took part and on the final restart, only five of them were on the lead lap with a chance to win. Erik Jones took the checkered flag with teammate Denny Hamlin — who was a lap down but finished sixth — pushing him to victory.
Jones’s winning car looked like he tanked a deer on Old Erie Pike. It was downright comical that he took the checkers. Joe Gibbs said after the race that his team probably spent $1 million just for a trophy. In a non-points race, most of the field apparently took the “checkers or wreckers” motto to heart.
What we saw during Sunday’s race that we didn’t see last year was a much quicker closing rate that, in turn, made blocking nearly impossible to pull off. Brad Keselowski was upset with teammate Joey Logano’s block that caused the first of the handful of “big ones” as he tried to block Kyle Busch and in turn waded up good race cars.
Tonight’s duel races could mean two things: handling might not play much of a factor with the nighttime skies and therefore, you’re likely to see cars two and three wide through a fuel run. That also means that drivers will likely be making some aggressive moves — moves that you saw in the Busch Clash that didn’t turn out so well. Hopefully better heads will prevail and they won’t take crazy chances in advancing a single spot or two just to start farther up in Sunday’s 500.
If practices on Saturday and Sunday’s Clash were any indication, it looks like the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas could be the team to beat. All four of its cars — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Jones — were bad fast and could seemingly go from the back to the front of a pack in short order. They also had single car speed — which is something the Hendrick Motorsports camp has been doing at Daytona for years but it hasn’t translated into the race whatsoever.
The Fords of Team Penske and Stewart Haas Racing also looked quite good, with Keselowski, Logano and Ryan Blaney looking rather racy in practice, as was Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola. While the Chevy camp definitely has speed in their cars — as evidence by a front row of JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Hendrick’s Alex Bowman — I didn’t see anything making them odds-on favorites in the practices and in Sunday’s Clash. Watch them be completely dominant now since I said that.
In reality, you could make a case for at least 30 of the 40 starting drivers winning the race because that’s what you get at the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. But if you’re looking for some solid darkhorse picks, I’ve got a few: Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain.
DiBenedetto — whose underdog story has picked him up plenty of fans — takes over the famous #21 Wood Brothers machine this year and is in a technical alliance with Team Penske. The alliance means the Wood Brothers ride is essentially the fourth Team Penske car, as they sit in on Penske team meetings and use brand new Penske chassis. Not only do I think DiBenedetto will be a contender for the 500, but I’ll predict that DiBenedetto wins at least one race this season and makes the playoffs. While he was with Levine Family Racing last season, a team that had a JGR alliance, all of the cars he did drive were severely outdated. And even with those outdated cars, he led the most laps at the Bristol night race and almost scored a huge upset victory before being passed by Hamlin in the waning laps.
Bell is a highly touted rookie (which also has Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer in a 2020 rookie class that’s arguably the strongest since the mid 2000s) that took over DiBenedetto’s old ride at LFR. Here’s the caveat though: Bell is going to be under the JGR banner sooner rather than later, as he’s been under contract with them for years. The problem is NASCAR limits teams to four cars. So with the talented dirt track racer from Oklahoma needing a Cup ride and with no room at JGR, you’ll see LFR essentially being the fifth Gibbs car now. Because of that, he’ll be just as strong on Sunday as his Gibbs counterparts.
My third darkhorse pick is Chastain, who is driving the #77 Spire Motorsports entry. While the entry list says Spire, this is technically a Chip Ganassi Racing entry and will be a team car to Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch. The Ganassi rides have been decent at Daytona over the last handful of years and like DiBenedetto, this is by far the best equipment Chastain has ever driven at the Cup Series level. He drove in the 500 last season with usual backmarker team Premium Motorsports and still finished 10th. Don’t be shocked if the former watermelon farmer from Florida is within striking distance late in the going.
But if I had to choose one driver to win, I’d go with Hamlin. He’s the defending champion of the 500 and is just flat out good at the superspeedways. Regardless of who wins, I think it’ll be an exciting race and, once again, I’m hoping it’s not a complete crash fest.