Friday, February 17, 2017

2017 Speedweeks Preview

The 2017 NASCAR season is upon us and this weekend marks the unofficial start to the season with the renamed Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition race on Saturday night followed by Daytona 500 pole position qualifying on Sunday afternoon.

Seventeen cars are entered for the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Saturday night. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner and defending Daytona 500 winner and could solely move into second-place all-time in Clash victories should he win his fourth. He would trail only Dale Earnhardt, who won the exhibition race six times. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won the then-Sprint Unlimited in 2014 and Kyle Busch won the event in 2012. Joe Gibbs Racing has won three consecutive Clashes, four of the last five and has won six of the last eleven editions of the race and is tied with Richard Childress Racing for most Clash victories by a team with eight victories apiece.

Daniel Suárez make his Cup series debut in the #19 Toyota as NASCAR will allow him to race despite not meeting the criteria because the team had prepared the car for the event prior to Carl Edwards announcing his retirement. Martin Truex, Jr. is the only other Toyota in the field. He finished second in the 2015 edition to Matt Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson returns as the defending series champion but has not won this race since 2005. Alex Bowman will race the #88 Chevrolet in place of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt, Jr. was eligible for the race as a two-time winner of the event and as the 2011 Daytona 500 pole-sitter but will take the race off and Bowman was eligible after winning pole position at Phoenix last November. Earnhardt, Jr. will make his return to competition in the Daytona 500 after being sidelined since July due to a concussion. This is the first Clash not to feature Earnhardt, Jr. since 2000, which was won by Dale Jarrett. Chase Elliott makes his Clash debut after winning last year's Daytona 500 pole position. His father Bill won the Clash in 1987. Hendrick Motorsports has won the Clash six times with Ken Schrader, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. responsible for the victories.

Both Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are entered and the team is going for its third Clash victory. Logano finished second last year to Hamlin and Keselowski finished second to Hamlin in 2014. Stewart-Haas Racing makes it debut with Ford. Kevin Harvick has won the event three times and Kurt Busch won the race in 2011. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of Harvick's lone Daytona 500 victory. Danica Patrick will make her fourth appearance in the race. Her best finish is tenth. Ford has not won the event since 2004 when Dale Jarrett won for Robert Yates Racing.

Austin Dillon is the only Richard Childress Racing driver in the Clash. The team hasn't won the race since 2013 and all the teams' victories came at the hands of Dale Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick. Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are in the race. Larson has finished in the top five the last two years in the race and McMurray's best finish was second in 2011. Chris Buescher makes his Clash debut with JTG Daugherty Racing. The Ganassi drivers and Buescher are eligible by qualifying for the Chase last year.

This year's Clash will be the first one not to feature a Roush owned car since 1988 but Roush Fenway Racing has two cars entered for the Daytona 500 with 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Clint Bowyer makes his debut for Stewart-Haas Racing in the #14 Ford replacing the retired Tony Stewart. Ryan Blaney returns for his third consecutive Daytona 500 in the famed #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

Matt DiBenedetto moves to Go Fas Racing from BK Racing to drive the #32 Ford. Landon Cassill remains at Front Row Motorsports but moves to the #34 Ford with David Ragan moving from BK Racing into the #38 Ford. Aric Almirola heads into his seventh Daytona 500 and for the sixth time with Richard Petty Racing. Cole Whitt joins TriStar Motorsports in the #72 Ford. Whitt failed to qualify for last year's Daytona 500 but his best career Cup finish came at Daytona last year in the July race with an 11th-place finish.

Kasey Kahne makes his 14th Daytona 500 appearance and he is still looking for his first top five finish in the famed race. He has started 13th in the last two Daytona 500s and finished 13th last year. Ty Dillon returns for his third Daytona 500 start but this year in the #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet. Paul Menard and 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman both return with Richard Childress Racing.

Jeffrey Earnhardt will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #33 Chevrolet for the newly merged Circle Sport - The Motorsports Group. The 27-year-old Earnhardt has made 25 Cup starts with his best finish being 27th at Richmond last September with Go Fas Racing. A.J. Allmendinger returns for his eighth Daytona 500 and fourth with JTG Daugherty Racing. Since finishing third in his Daytona 500 debut in 2009, Allmendinger's average finish in the other six starts is 24th. Michael McDowell returns in the #95 Leavine Family Racing and is coming off a tenth-place finish at last year's season finale at Homestead.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will make his 784th and final start in what will be his 30th Daytona 500 start in the #15 Premium Motorsports Toyota. Waltrip will retire with the tenth most starts in NASCAR Cup Series history. He has also led at least one lap in 31 consecutive seasons. Joey Gase will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #23 BK Racing Toyota. In 13 Cup starts, Gase's best finish was 32nd at Phoenix last March. Along with Gase, Erik Jones will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.

The following six teams are the non-chartered teams and will have to make the race either on qualifying speed or through the Thursday night qualifying races. For the first time since 2012, Elliott Sadler will attempt to make the Daytona 500 in the #7 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet. Sadler has six top ten finishes in 13 Daytona 500 starts. Timmy Hill will attempt to make his Daytona 500 debut in the #51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Reed Sorenson missed last year's race and will again have to either qualify or race his way in but this time in the #55 Premium Motorsports Toyota. Brendan Gaughan will attempt to make his first Daytona 500 since 2004 in the #75 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet. Corey Lajoie will attempt to make his Daytona 500 debut in the #83 BK Racing Toyota. Lajoie has two Cup starts but both those came in 2014. Canadian D.J. Kennington will drive the #96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota. Kennington's lone Cup start came at Phoenix last November.

Heading into Daytona 500 pole position qualifying, three of the last four pole positions have been won by rookie drivers and the last two pole positions have been won by Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson is the only active driver with multiple Daytona 500 pole positions. No one has won the Daytona 500 from pole position since Dale Jarrett in 2000. Toyota has yet to win a Daytona 500 pole position.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is looking for his sixth Daytona 500 qualifying race victory and he could tie Cale Yarborough for second all-time in that department. Earnhardt, Jr. has won a qualifying race each of the last two years and should he win a qualifying race this year, he would join Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and his father as the only drivers to win a qualifying race in three consecutive years. His father won a qualifying race for ten consecutive years from 1990 to 1999.

The Advance Auto Parts Clash will take place on Saturday February 18th at 8:00 p.m. ET. Daytona 500 Pole Position Qualifying will be Sunday February 19th at 3:00 p.m. ET. Thursday night's qualifying races are scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET and 9:00 p.m. ET on February 23rd. The 59th Daytona 500 is scheduled for 2:31 p.m. ET on Sunday February 26th.