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Previewing NASCAR’s Great American Crapshoot, the Daytona 500

Everything you need to know before the Daytona 500

NASCAR: Daytona 500
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The stage is set for the Great American Crapshoot.

Listen, the modern Daytona 500 has always been about avoiding the massive melees and getting track position ahead of the final green flag pit stop in advance of the run to the finish but the past two years have made the results even more random.

That does not mean there is no skill involved with winning the most prestigious race in NASCAR but the past two years of superspeedway has produced precious few constants in both consistent front runners and in the results.

“There is no favorites in this race,” said three-time winner Denny Hamlin. “There are none.”

Isn’t that wild?

Hamlin and Michael McDowell were amongst the best on drafting tracks with the previous generation of car but haven’t had the continued success over the past two years. This car is too different and it’s changed the racing in measurable ways.

And it’s made Hamlin and McDowell, or even a Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace, no longer the obvious contenders like they were near the of the Gen6 era.

“I feel like I’ve had work to do as far as what I was doing behind the wheel of this generation of car,” said McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner. “Some of that is situational, muscle memory and the approach of how you make runs, build runs, keep your energy up, speed up and I think it’s different now in this NextGen car.”

McDowell believes Hamlin is starting to return to form in this style of racing and credits his meticulous approach.

“My guess is that Denny studied guys who were doing it well and is probably about to get back to where he was here and I feel like it’s the same for me,” McDowell said. “I just had to make some adjustments to my approach because this car drives differently and the third lane doesn’t build like it used to. Keeping the cars behind you and keeping a lane moving, it’s all different from the Gen-6.

“So, I just think it lends itself to needing to do more homework.”

Hamlin echoed that sentiment too.

“It’s an evolution you’ve got to continue to change because the NextGen cars do draft so much differently than what we saw for the Gen-6 cars,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, you saw two-by-two racing. You’re going to see that for the bulk of Sunday as well. It’s just these Next Gen cars have a lot of drag in them which is why we qualify 20 miles an hour slower than we used to.

“So, with that, you’ve really got to stay in line for the bulk of the race. Once you establish whether you’re on the inside or the outside, there’s no real opportunities to make moves like you used to. So, you’ve got to just be patient and try to cycle up to the front through strategy or pick the right lane when a lane starts to bobble, right?

“It’s just different in that aspect, so it takes a little more patience for the Next Gen.”

If there was an exception to the no expected favorites theory, it would have to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the defending Daytona 500 winner, right?

After all, he was in the mix for a decade in the old car and picked up right where his JTG Daugherty Motorsports No. 47 picked off once they transitioned to the NextGen.

But because these cars are so draggy and making moves are so much more difficult, the potential for the big crash is even greater the moment even one or two drivers decide they want to make moves even though their stuck in place.

The cars are just too bogged down and that’s why it’s the Great American Crapshoot.

About the new Toyotas

Daniel Vining | Sportsnaut

Rumors of the superspeedway demise of Toyota Racing Development were greatly exaggerated.

When all the Toyotas struggled to post fast single car laps in qualifying, there were some in the industry and outside of it, who felt the new Camry XLE body could be an immediate flop this weekend. Not a single Toyota was represented in the top-10 of time trials.

Then came the Duels, won by TRD drivers Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, and a practice session in which Hamlin posted the fastest times.

And, with the addition of Legacy Motor Club, the manufacturer has two additional cars to work with beyond just the four Joe Gibbs Racing and two 23XI Racing entries this season.

“I think a lot of the drivers remained confident going into racing conditions that the car would work better in the draft,” said Reddick after winning the first qualifying race on Thursday.

The biggest issue in the races at Daytona and Talladega for Toyota, and at Atlanta to a lesser extent, is that when Toyota teams worked together, they couldn’t push as well because their nose and bumpers didn’t line up.

That’s an important part of this kind of racing because cars that line up almost like a Lego piece are better optimized for drafting.

“I think they accomplished that,” Bell said after winning the second qualifying race. “We were able to push very successfully. It seemed like the guys receiving the pushes were able to stay under control more than what they could with the previous version of the car.

“The new Camry really showed its strength with myself, John Hunter (Nemechek) and Denny on the bottom line being able to move our way back up forward compared to the Fords on the outside. That was rewarding to be able to have that pace and claw back to the front. We certainly didn’t plan on qualifying well, but our hopes were that it would race well, and it certainly did.”

Erik Jones drove his Legacy car from the back to fifth in the first qualifying races and learned all he needed to about his new platform on a superspeedway.

“As soon as the green dropped, I was like, man, it’s good,” Jones said. “And we were able to cycle right there to the front. It’s such a short race. Things just didn’t play out good enough for us to try and have a shot between pit road, and then that yellow came out right when we got cycled back to 11th. It just didn’t play out right.

“Our Advent Health Camry was good, so it makes me look forward to Sunday a lot more than probably after qualifying. We were a little worried about speed and it feels good now.”

The Daytona 500 is still a bit of a lottery but Toyota feels a little better about its ability to stack the deck.

The Great American Rain Delay?

The Daytona 500 will have effectively been in a two-day long rain delay by time racing starts on Sunday, first with the Xfinity Series race on Saturday and then the Great American Race on Sunday afternoon.

Cup Series final practice was rained out on Saturday so drivers will have had all weekend to find something to do. Ty Gibbs says he likes to do homework.

“There are sometimes when I’ll go see – if we’re in the middle of the race and I was struggling in some spot, I’ll look and see where I could get better at,” said Gibbs. “My team sends me some stuff or I look myself. That’s for races that have already started. Otherwise, I usually just hang out. I eat well and try to hydrate the proper way.”

Chase Elliott, the 2020 champion and most popular driver, takes an approach that basically sounds like it is what it is.

“It doesn’t do anything to my psyche,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what it does to anybody else’s other than just being here for another day or two. It’s Wednesday, and we’re in Florida. So, I think, the biggest things it changes are the spectators based on who wants to come and whether or not they want to sit in the rain. For me, I don’t think it changes a whole lot, really at all. I’m here until we get this thing done whenever that is.”

Kyle Larson thinks about food and drink a lot.

“Depends how long the rain delay is going to be,” Larson said. “Hmmm… I mean, we sit there with a lot of rain delays at Daytona. I’m thinking about what we’ve done in Daytona.

“I know we’ve gotten Chipotle before. Used to have an XBOX, used to play that some. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve watched like Disney movies during rain delay. Just kind of do whatever.”

He had to miss out on a motor home lot fiesta once.

“I was bummed one time,” Larson said. “I don’t even know if it was a rain delay. Like, Katelyn and Laura, they were having a taco night. They were all drinking margaritas and stuff. I wanted one so bad, but I had to go race so I couldn’t do that.”

Ross Chastain feels that struggle.

“I’m trying not to eat,” he said. “Even if I’ve eaten and prepared, and we go out and run 10 laps in the race and we get out, I’m looking for food. It’s just my natural nervous instinct. So I’ll eat more.

“Even though we aren’t racing, we’re still burning calories. The nerves and the adrenaline and the heart rate is up. It’s impossible not to need to take in more calories during these events.”

Chastain says all the teams are prepared so it doesn’t affect anything from a logistics standpoint. It does however affect his family’s watermelon farm in nearby Alva, Florida.

“We plan accordingly,” he said. “We have rooms booked in case we need them. That’s a necessary insurance plan. I don’t dwell. I’d rather the rain be here than at the farm. We don’t need any more rain.

“A little bit is okay but not the two days of steady rain like they’re talking here. Farmer at heart here has been looking at different weather apps my entire life and listening to forecasts and meteorologists. We’ll see.”

Penske powered

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Team Penske is quietly on a major role across all motorsports.

Joey Logano, a two-time Cup Series champion, delivered team owner Roger Penske his first pole position in the Daytona 500 on Wednesday. This comes a month after his IMSA team won the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for the first time since 1969, this time with Felipe Nasr, Dane Cameron, Matt Campbell and Josef Newgarden.

Speaking of Newgarden, the Rolex win came a week after he was awarded his personal Baby Borg trophy for delivering Penske his 19th victory in the Indianapolis 500.

His NASCAR team? They’ve won the first two championships in the NextGen car era with Logano and Penske respectively.

Team Penske is surely the most decorated racing organization in the United States.

“There’s not a cooler race team that you can work for when it comes to motorsports in general,” Logano said. “There’s not another motorsports team in America that’s decorated as much as Team Penske and what Roger Penske has done, whether it’s in NASCAR, sports cars, IndyCar, you name it, the guy’s been involved in all of it.

“One thing that’s in common with all of it is he wins. That’s where I want to be because of that reason, right? The guy wins, he does it right, he’s professional. There’s no corners ever cut.”

Blaney is trying to become the first reigning champion to turn around and win the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000.

“It’s about time someone maybe does it again,” Blaney said. “We’ll see. You just try to learn from experiences from previous races here and figure out, ‘Hey, what did we do well to put us in a spot to win? And what decisions did I make that kind of kept us out of victory lane?’ And you just hope to find yourself in those spots again and try to make the right decision, so we’ll see.

“You just try to be rolling at the end of it and hopefully you’re there, but I’m excited for it. It should be great and try to add the 500 onto RP’s Rolex 24 that he got not too long ago here.”

Record purse

NASCAR: Daytona 500
Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The 66th annual Daytona 500 boasts a record single-event purse across all motorsports with a complete payout of $28,035,991 across the field. That is more than over a million from last year when the purse was $26,934,357.

McDowell, who won the race in 2021, doesn’t know what the winner gets because its part of a formula as a result of the charter system. NASCAR monies per position have also not been made public since 2016.  

But, it’s ‘significant’ as McDowell put it.

“It’s the biggest race of the year for us and for the team from a payout standpoint,” McDowell said. “It does matter, especially for a team like us at Front Row Motorsports. Winning the race and making the Playoffs, financially what that does for you, it sets up the next few years—not just that year.

“If you’re going to win a race, this is the one you want to win, as far as the financial part of it goes.”

In 2015, Logano was known to have earned $1,586,503 for winning the race. It stands to reasons this year will pay considerably more. Last year, Stenhouse was able to modernize his home.

“Yeah it’s definitely beneficial for both,” Stenhouse said of the team and driver portion. “Monday aside, we’re here to get into Victory Lane and get the trophy and all the accolades that go with it. On the money side, it takes a lot of money to make this sport go round and this race team.

“My wife and I are redoing our bathroom, our bedroom and now the nursery. So it would go a long way. It’s kind of already spent. I hope we win.”

The odds

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Denny Hamlin, despite all the changes to the racing here over the past three years, is still a three-time winner so the sports books like him to contend for a fourth. Logano moved closer to the front after winning the pole, even though a pole winner hasn’t won the race since Dale Jarrett in 2000, when he was the defending Cup Series champion.

“I think it helps on some things,” Logano said. “When other drivers see that you have a fast car, I really think that speedway racing is all about reputation. If you have a fast car with a driver that understands the draft, cars will go with you more often. It makes you more confident to put this thing out in the wind. It’s going to pull a lane. It’s got the speed. You put it out front, it’s going to tote the lane forward. That’s what you want.

“As a driver, it puts you in a pretty good spot, you know? When I got the team that I have behind me, with a spotter, Coleman, myself really understanding the draft well, our pit crew seems to be lights out right now in practice, things are looking really good.

“We just have to go out there and execute our job at this point. We all know how to do that, but we’ve got a good bullet in the chamber right now to fire away and see what we got.”

The odds can be found below.

DriverFanDuel oddsDraftKings odds
Denny Hamlin+1100+900
Kyle Busch+1400+1100
Ryan Blaney+900+1200
Brad Keselowski+1200+1200
Joey Logano+1400+1400
Ricky Stenhouse Jr+2200+2800
Bubba Wallace+2000+1800
Chris Buescher+1200+1400
Chase Elliott+1200+1400
Martin Truex Jr.+2000+2000
Austin Cindric+2200+2800
Alex Bowman+3500+2800
Austin Dillon+3000+3000
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter. 
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