DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (McClatchy) — The Daytona 500 — what other accolades are there to heap upon it? It’s the most highly regarded race in NASCAR, and even people who aren’t racing fans tune in to one of the world’s most captivating sports events.
And it’s finally here.
So, what can fans expect from the 60th Daytona 500? Here are four bold predictions for what’s to come on Sunday (and one freebie, in case the others fall short):
1. Bad day for championship contenders
Only five drivers (Lee Petty, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson) have won the Daytona 500 and a NASCAR championship in the same season. That won’t change in 2018. On top of that, I’m not sure last season’s four championship contenders — Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — will have terrific showings, either. While those four could really assert themselves on safer, more conventional tracks, anything can happen at Daytona. Considering the poor qualifying efforts from Truex and Keselowski, plus Harvick mentioning he needs to improve significantly before the 500, I wouldn’t pick any of last season’s contenders to finish in the top three.
2. A new driver shocks everyone … and almost wins
This one sort of bends the rules, but we’re really talking about a handful of guys: Alex Bowman, William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. Both Byron and Bowman finished in the top five in qualifying (with Bowman winning the pole), and their cars don’t figure to magically get slower in the days leading up to the 500. Byron especially is interesting, given his meteoric rise through the ranks of NASCAR (he spent one season each in the two lower divisions, winning the Xfinity Series championship in 2017). One of those two will still be hanging around the front of the pack late in the race, and while they likely won’t win, a top-five finish is absolutely a possibility.
3. New technicality proves costly
This season, NASCAR is allowing fewer crew members over the wall during pit stops. That may seem insignificant, but here’s what it means: Every team will be trying something different to go as fast as possible. And in that haste, there comes waste. Without a proven blueprint for pit stops now, one crew will slip or otherwise make an error during a stop — and it will prove costly to a contender.
4. My dark-horse favorite to win is …
You might have seen that Bowman, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s successor in the No. 88 car, won the pole for the 500. Denny Hamlin, who won the 2016 race, will start second. Then there’s a whole list of other quality candidates who pose a threat to win: Keselowski, Harvick, Chase Elliott and many others. And instead of any of them, I’m going with … Kyle Larson, who finished 22nd in initial qualifying and limped to the finish line last season. Yep. Speaking to other drivers at the track, there’s a sense that Larson will always be in contention at the two superspeedway tracks (Daytona and Talladega). Last year, he had a chance to win before running out of gas — and went on to have a breakthrough season anyway. This year, I say he learns from that mistake and starts 2018 with a victory.
As for that gimme prediction …
5. Expect a ‘Big One’ (or two … or more)
Like you didn’t expect this? The Daytona 500 has more than earned its reputation as the most prestigious race in NASCAR — and part of that allure, even if it’s a bit darker to consider, is because of all the wrecks. Hardly a year goes by in the Daytona 500 where you don’t see a “Big One.” The official definition there means any crash that involves five or more cars, and at Daytona, you can easily surpass that. Last season there were eight cautions during the race, and only 15 of 40 entrants actually finished all 200 laps. So no, this isn’t a bold prediction — if anything, it’s closer to a guarantee.
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