Friday, February 9, 2018

2018 NASCAR Cup Season and Daytona 500 Preview

NASCAR is back and this year a week earlier than the year before. It is a changing time in NASCAR. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are gone. In comes William Byron and Alex Bowman while Darrell Wallace, Jr. is now full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports, which is now a Chevrolet team. Erik Jones moves to Joe Gibbs Racing and defending champions Furniture Row Racing downsizes to one car for Martin Truex, Jr. Team Penske is up to three cars with Ryan Blaney moving from Wood Brothers Racing.

Besides drivers on the move, Speedweeks sees the Clash move to after Daytona 500 qualifying on Sunday February 11th. Qualifying leads off the day at 12:30 p.m. ET with the Clash set for 3:00 p.m. ET. The 150-mile qualifying races will be run Thursday February 15th at 7:00 p.m. ET. The 60th Daytona 500 will be Sunday February 18th at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Below will breakdown the drivers into two sections. The first part will be drivers entered in the Clash while the second half will be drivers not competing in the Clash. Each driver will be listed with team, last year's championship finish, best result in the Clash for those drivers in the Clash, best result in the Daytona 500 and an outlook on the 2018 season.

Clash Entries
Jamie McMurray: #1 McDonald's/Cessna/DC Solar/GearWrench Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 12th
Best Clash Result: 2nd (2009, 2011)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2010)
2018 Outlook: McMurray made the Chase in what was a good but less than exciting season. He had 17 top ten finishes but only three top five finishes, only one that came in the second half of the season and he led 21 laps all season. He has a teammate that can compete for the championship but I think McMurray will be in the shadows for most of 2018.

Brad Keselowski: #2 Discount Tire/Miller Lite/Alliance Truck Part/Wurth/Horizon Global Corporation/Snap-On Ford
Team: Team Penske
2017 Championship Finish: 4th
Best Clash Result: 2nd (2014)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 3rd (2014)
2018 Outlook: Keselowski keeps pouting about the Fords being at a disadvantage this season. He might be right but it doesn't make him less insufferable. He will win a race or two and finish somewhere in the top ten in the championship.

Austin Dillon: #3 DOW/American Ethanol/AAA Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 11th
Best Clash Result: 8th (2016)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 9th (2014, 2016)
2018 Outlook: He won at Charlotte and had three top five finishes and four top ten finishes the entire season and somehow advanced from one round of the Chase and was on the cusp of a top ten finish in the championship. He ended the season with 11 consecutive finishes outside the top ten. I don't expect him to make the Chase for a second consecutive year.

Kevin Harvick: #4 Busch Beer/Jimmy John's/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 3rd
Best Clash Result: 1st (2009, 2010, 2013)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2007)
2018 Outlook: Harvick has been one of the most consistent drivers over the last decade. He has finished in the top five of the championship six of the last eight seasons and that includes eight consecutive years finishing in the top ten of the championship. Going back to 2006, Harvick has eight top five championship finishes and 11 top ten championship finishes. Despite driving one of the under-performing Fords that Keselowski is so worried about I expect Harvick to once again win multiple races and possibly be the top Ford driver in the championship for a second consecutive season.

Chase Elliott: #9 NAPA Auto Parts/SunEnergy1/Kelley Blue Book/Mountain Dew/Hooters Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: 5th
Best Clash Result: 7th (2017)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 14th (2017)
2018 Outlook: The young man was scratching on the door for victory but could not breakthrough. He did win a points-paying race last year since 10 points were awarded to the winners of the Daytona 500 qualifying races. At 22 years old, some are already casting him off because if you don't win by the age of 22 when are you going to win? While that is absurd, there is a feeling of when is it going to happen especially after how close he has come. I expect him to get that elusive first victory this year.

Denny Hamlin: #11 Fedex/Sport Clips Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 6th
Best Clash Result: 1st (2006, 2014, 2016)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2016)
2018 Outlook: Hamlin finished tied for the second-most top five finishes in 2017 on 15 with Keselowski and Larson and he was also tied for third-most top ten finishes with Kyle Busch on 22. On top of all that he completed the fifth-most laps behind Michael McDowell, Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. He will be a solid driver and make the semifinal round.

Ryan Blaney: #12 Menards/REV Group/Fitzgerald Glider Kits/PPG/Dex Imaging Ford
Team: Team Penske
2017 Championship Finish: 9th
Best Clash Result: This is his Clash debut.
Best Daytona 500 Result: 2nd (2017)
2018 Outlook: Blaney won at Pocono but that glosses over what was a slightly disappointing season. He would only get one more top five finish all season after that Pocono victory and that was Kansas in October. His 21 lead lap finishes was tied for second-fewest among the Chase drivers with Austin Dillon and Kasey Kahne had one fewer. Penske is a step up and crew chief Jeremy Bullins follows Blaney. I think he gets more lead lap finishes and will be the second-best Penske driver in the championship.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: #17 Fastenal/Fifth Third Bank/SunnyD Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 13th
Best Clash Result: 6th (2016)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 7th (2014)
2018 Outlook: He won two restrictor plate races and then went 15 races between top ten finishes from July to October. Roush Fenway Racing is still far from where it was a decade ago and I don't expect this team to take a step forward.

Kyle Busch: #18 M&Ms/Interstate Batteries Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 2nd
Best Clash Result: 1st (2012)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 3rd (2016)
2018 Outlook: He is going to win a bunch, whine a bunch, piss off a bunch of people and once again find himself alive for the championship heading into Martinsville and the final four races. I would expect him to be the top championship finisher from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Erik Jones: #20 DeWalt/Circle K/Reser's/Sports Clip Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 19th
Best Clash Result: This is his Clash debut.
Best Daytona 500 Result: 39th (2017)
2018 Outlook: The first year was promising especially when taking in consideration the team he was driving for a new team in the form of a second entry for Furniture Row Racing. Jones qualified well in 2017 and I think the move to Joe Gibbs Racing could put himself in position to make the Chase based on points.

Joey Logano: #22 Shell/Pennzoil/AAA/ Ford
Team: Team Penske
2017 Championship Finish: 17th
Best Clash Result: 1st (2017)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2015)
2018 Outlook: In the oddity of 2017, Logano vanished after his Richmond victory was deemed invalid for having him make the Chase because his car had an illegal rear suspension. He had eight top ten finishes from the first nine races. He finished the year with nine top ten finishes from the final 27 races. I don't expect this run of form to continue but he might be a driver that is fighting for a spot in the semifinal round and either just makes it for falls short.

Ryan Newman: #31 Caterpillar/Grainger/Liberty National Life Insurance Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 16th
Best Clash Result: 2nd (2005)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2008)
2018 Outlook: Despite finishing behind his teammate Dillon, Newman had a better season. He won a race but had seven top five finishes, his most since 2011, and 13 top ten finishes. He has been consistent and has had only nine retirements over the past four seasons but he has had 38 lapped finishes in that time including over ten finishes a lap down the last two years. He is good and will be on the fringe of making the Chase on points.

Kurt Busch: #41 Monster Energy/Haas Automation Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 14th
Best Clash Result: 1st (2011)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2017)
2018 Outlook: Busch appeared to be on his way out after 2017 but he has been brought back for one season. Despite winning last year's Daytona 500, Busch's season was off of his Harvick's and I don't think he will be contending for top honors within SHR. This could be another year where he appears to be on his way out in July.

Kyle Larson: #42 CreditOne/DC Solar Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 8th
Best Clash Result: 4th (2016)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 7th (2016)
2018 Outlook: He is one engine failure away from advancing to the semifinal round of the Chase. He followed that with three bad results when his season was done and dusted and ended the year with an impressive drive at Homestead. I expect him to contend for a shot at the championship at Homestead and he could win the most races this season.

Jimmie Johnson: #48 Lowe's Home Improvement/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: 10th
Best Clash Result: 1st (2005)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2006, 2013)
2018 Outlook: Johnson won three races earlier in the season and then disappeared for most of the rest of the season. He went 15 races between top five finishes, which were his victory at Dover and a third at Dover. He made the final eight but after a quiet day at Martinsville it didn't appear he was a serious threat for an eighth championship. I think he will be more consistent for the entirety of the season and not have a lull over the summer.

Martin Truex, Jr.: #78 Bass Pro Shops/Five-Hour Energy/Auto-Owner Insurance Toyota
Team: Furniture Row Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 1st
Best Clash Result: 2nd (2015)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 2nd (2016)
2018 Outlook: It is tough to defend championship and the current format only makes it more difficult. It is hard to expect Truex to repeat his form on 1.5-mile ovals. He is bound to have a bad day but I think he will win multiple races on 1.5-mile ovals. Can his form on the other racetracks make up for the bad days he didn't have in 2017?

Kasey Kahne: #95 WRL General Contractors/Procore Chevrolet
Team: Levine Family Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 15th
Best Clash Result: 2nd (2010)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 7th (2007, 2008, 2017)
2018 Outlook: The Washingtonian moves from Hendrick Motorsports after an under-fulfilled stint with the team. Levine Family Racing has had some impressive results, especially at restrictor plate racetracks but Kahne has a terrible track record in restrictor plate races. In 56 restrictor plate races he has zero victories, six top five finishes and 16 top ten finishes with an average finish of 20.55. It seems hard to imagine this team cracking the top 20 in the championship.

Daytona 500 Entires
Jeffrey Earnhardt: #00 VRX Simulations Chevrolet
Team: StarCom Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 36th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 26th (2017)
2018 Outlook: He will get people excited every time they see the name Earnhardt on the ticker during races and people will quickly fall to earth when realize it is Jeffrey.

Trevor Bayne: #6 AdvoCare/Performance Plus Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 22nd
Best Daytona 500 Result: 1st (2011)
2018 Outlook: Bayne won his second career start, it just so happened to be the Daytona 500 and since then he has had four top five finishes in his last 164 starts. Don't expect him to crack the top twenty unless he repeats his 2011 achievement.

Danica Patrick: #7 Chevrolet
Team: Premium Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: 28th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 8th (2013)
2018 Outlook: She is running the Daytona 500 and then riding off into the sunset with a yet-to-be-announced Indianapolis 500 ride. If she wins, she leaves in tears and NASCAR will get to promote having a woman finally win a Cup race. If she doesn't win, well the show will go on. Whoever replaces her in the Premium Motorsports seat won't do much.

Aric Almirola: #10 Smithfield Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 29th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 4th (2017)
2018 Outlook: I think Almirola will have a competitive season and is in position to have a career-best season. He could be one of those drivers on the fringe of making the Chase on points and he could win a restrictor plate race.

Ty Dillon: #13 GEICO/Twisted Tea Chevrolet
Team: Germain Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 24th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 25th (2016)
2018 Outlook: He will continue to be mired in the middle.

Clint Bowyer: #14 Mobil 1/Rush Truck Centers/Haas Automation Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 18th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 4th (2009, 2010)
2018 Outlook: Bowyer had a good start to 2017 but fell off and couldn't score enough points or win a race to make the Chase. I think he will have a few races where he is in the hunt for a victory. Whether he can breakthrough and get his first victory since 2012 will depend on if he can beat the likes of Larson, Elliott, Johnson, Busch and Truex, Jr.

Daniel Suárez: #19 ARRIS/Stanley/PEAK Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 20th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 29th (2017)
2018 Outlook: Suárez did a really good job of bringing the car home in 2017 and that consistency got him results. I think he will take a step forward but will definitely have to deal with the pressure of having fellow sophomore Erik Jones now as a teammate.

Paul Menard: #21 Menards/Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford
Team: Wood Brothers Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 23rd
Best Daytona 500 Result: 5th (2017)
2018 Outlook: He completed the second-most laps last season. The Wood Brothers did well with Blaney but this is a new set up and I don't expect the team to repeat its 2017 form.

William Byron: #24 Quicken Loans/Mountain Dew/UniFirst/Axalta/Liberty University Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: Rookie (2017 NASCAR Grand National Series championship).
Best Daytona 500 Result: This is his debut
2018 Outlook: He is the latest rookie with all the sunshine being blown up his backside. After two decorated seasons in Trucks and the second division it will be put up or shut up in Cup. He is only 20 years old and I think he will face adversity this season and finish fourth of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers.

Matt DiBenedetto: #32 Can-Am Ford
Team: Go Fas Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 32nd
Best Daytona 500 Result: 9th (2017)
2018 Outlook: He will be competing to crack the top 30.

Michael McDowell: #34 Love's Travel Stops/K-LOVE Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: 26th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 9th (2013)
2018 Outlook: McDowell had a few good seasons at Levine Family Racing but the switch to Front Row Motorsports could see him fall a few pegs back.

Chris Buescher: #37 Kroger ClickList/Scott Products/Kleenex/Cottonelle Mega/Kroger/Bush's Beans Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 25th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 25th (2017)
2018 Outlook: Buescher doubled his top ten finish total in 2017 as he picked up four top ten finishes. I think he could have another career year in terms of top ten finishes and still not crack the top 20 in the championship.

David Ragan: #38 Hospital for Children Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: 30th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 5th (2007)
2018 Outlook: Ragan's best Daytona 500 finish was his first Daytona 500 start and he threw the 2011 race away when he very well could have won the whole damn thing. Front Row Motorsports has its days in restrictor plate races and Ragan has three consecutive top ten finishes in restrictor plate races. As for the whole season, it would be a surprise if he gets multiple top ten finishes on non-restrictor plate races.

Darrell Wallace, Jr.: #43 Click n' Close/Smithfield/ U.S. Air Force/STP Chevrolet
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: Rookie (Made four starts as a championship ineligible driver)
Best Daytona 500 Result: This is his debut.
2018 Outlook: Wallace, Jr. has a lot of attention, as he becomes a full-time Cup driver. He was doing really well in the Grand National Series before the money ran drive and it kept him from a shot at the championship. RPM moves to Chevrolet at what appears to be the right time. I think he will give Byron a run for his money for rookie of the year.

A.J. Allmendinger: #47 Kroger ClickList/Kingsford Charcoal/Clorox/Scott Products/Bush's Beans/Louisiana Hot Sauce Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 27th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 3rd (2009, 2017)
2018 Outlook: His best hope is winning a road course. If he can't do that then he might have a shot at Martinsville or a restrictor plate race. Outside of those six races prior to the Chase, Allmendinger needs to be superb to have half a prayer at making the Chase.

Justin Marks: #51 Harry's Shavin Products Chevrolet
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Made one start as a championship ineligible driver)
Best Daytona 500 Result: This is his debut. He failed to qualified for the 2015 Daytona 500.
2018 Outlook: Marks is only onboard for Daytona and the remaining of the races in this car remains unknown. Originally, Ray Black, Jr. was supposed to be full-time in this car.

Brendan Gaughan: #62 Beard Oil/South Point Chevrolet
Team: Beard Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Made 4 starts as a championship ineligible driver)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 11th (2017)
2018 Outlook: Gaughan made his first Daytona 500 start in 13 years last year and like he did in all four of his starts last year, he hung out at the back and let the field take itself out. I expect the same strategy to be in place this year as he once again is slated to run the restrictor plate races.

Mark Thompson: #66 MBM Motorsports Chevrolet
Team: MBM Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Made one start as a championship ineligible driver)
Best Daytona 500 Result: This is his debut
2018 Outlook: Thompson is 61 years old and will likely make his Daytona 500 debut. I expect him to ride around, like Gaughan, and hope to get a top 20 because half the field was taken out in one accident. Thompson started the autumn race at Talladega, his first start in over 25 years. In his only two starts, Thompson has finished 39th in both races.

Corey LaJoie: #72 TriStar Motorsports Chevrolet
Team: TriStar Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Made 32 starts as a championship ineligible driver)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 24th (2017)
2018 Outlook: LaJoie moves over from the dying BK Racing and he will split this car with Cole Whitt. Whitt's best finish in 2017 was 12th at Indianapolis.

Alex Bowman: #88 Nationwide Insurance/Axalta Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Ran the Clash and made two starts in the Grand National Series with a victory and an eighth place finish).
Best Daytona 500 Result: 23rd (2015)
2018 Outlook: I think Bowman enters prepared and motivated. He could be the stunner of the season and if he wins a race before Elliott it will likely break Elliott's career. He will be in contention for a Chase spot on points if he doesn't get a victory.

David Gilliland: #92 RBR Enterprises Ford
Team: RBR Enterprises
2017 Championship Finish: N/A (Did not run in 2017)
Best Daytona 500 Result: 3rd (2011)
2018 Outlook: He is only doing Daytona. If he wins, good for him and if he doesn't then we will move on.

D.J. Kennington: #96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota
Team: Gaunt Brothers Racing
2017 Championship Finish: 39th
Best Daytona 500 Result: 36th (2017)
2018 Outlook: The Canadian made four starts last year and that was enough for him to crack the top 40 in the championship. Expect him to hang out at the back in the Daytona 500.

There is one other car on the entry list. BK Racing has entered the #23 Toyota without a driver. BK Racing is in a court battle over unpaid loans to Union Bank & Trust in Virginia.

A few notes about this Daytona 500 and first, this is the 60th Daytona 500, which kicks off the 70th NASCAR Cup season. Where has the time gone? The golden anniversary seemed like yesterday. One thing noticed while previewing this race is double-digit as have won seven consecutive Daytona 500s. That is the longest such stretch since double-digit cars won the first 26 Daytona 500s.

The team now known as Richard Petty Motorsports has the most Daytona 500 victories with nine and Hendrick Motorsports is second all-time with eight. Wood Brothers Racing is third on five victories. Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Team Penske all have two Daytona 500 victories.

Chevrolet has won 23 Daytona 500s, the most all-time. Ford is second on 15 victories. Toyota's only Daytona 500 victory came two years ago with Denny Hamlin. It is the only Daytona 500 winning manufacture without multiple Daytona 500 victories.

Martin Truex, Jr. attempts to become the first defending Cup champion to win the Daytona 500 since Jeff Gordon did it in 1999. The most recent defending Cup champion to win the Clash was Dale Earnhardt in 1995. The pole-sitter has not won the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000. That was also the last time a driver won the Daytona 500 from the front row, although Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won the 2004 after moving up to the first spot of the grid when Greg Biffle had to go to the rear of the field for an engine change.

Chevrolet has won five consecutive Daytona 500 pole positions and nine of the last ten. The one outlier was Carl Edwards in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford in 2012. Chase Elliott could become the third driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500 pole positions joining his father Bill, who did it from 1985 to 1987, and Ken Schrader, who won the pole positions from 1988 to 1990. Elliott's crew chief Alan Gustafson has won three consecutive pole positions as he has been on Elliott's car the last two years and was Jeff Gordon's crew chief in 2015. Toyota has yet to win a Daytona 500 pole position.

Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing are tied for the most Clash victories on eight with Hendrick Motorsports on six. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are the only active drivers with multiple Clash victories and both have won the race three times.

In terms of the Daytona 500 qualifying races, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each have three victories in the event, the most among active drivers. Jimmie Johnson is the only other active driver to win in the event twice. Chase Elliott picked up his first victory last year in the event and in doing so Hendrick Motorsports now has 14 Daytona 500 qualifying races, one behind Richard Childress Racing for most all-time. Hendrick Motorsports has won four of six Daytona 500 qualifying races in the last three years. Hamlin's victory last year was Joe Gibbs Racing's tenth victory in the event. Ford has not won a 150-mile qualifier since Matt Kenseth in 2012.

The 60th Daytona 500 leads off what will be six consecutive weeks of racing before the Easter break. The series returns to action at Texas with nine consecutive weeks on track until off on Father's Day weekend. Sonoma will be the first race of summer on June 24th with the next off week not being until August 25th. After that off week in August, the season closes with 12 consecutive weeks of races and the season closes at Homestead on November 18th.