DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Never before has one race displayed NASCAR’s rapidly changing look more than this year’s Daytona 500.
Three drivers under age 25 will start in the first two rows, new rules will make the cars difficult to drive and NASCAR’s longtime most popular driver will watch from the sidelines.
NASCAR begins its season Sunday with the 60th running of “The Great American Race” and Alex Bowman on the pole.
Who? Well, the guy who got Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s coveted seat at Hendrick Motorsports when concussions forced the superstar to retire. Bowman is 24 and had washed out of NASCAR once before when he got the call to help during Earnhardt’s absence. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave him a car capable of earning the top starting spot for the biggest race of the year, and after nearly a full year out of a race car, Bowman will lead the field to green.
“I haven’t speedway raced in a year, so it’s going to be tough,” Bowman said. “I have to get my feet back under me as far as speedway racing goes.”
Bowman has given no indication how his car will handle because, in an effort to keep it safe for the Daytona 500, he dropped to the back of the field during his qualifying race and avoided drafting. Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott took the opposite approach, won his qualifying race and earned a starting spot in the second row.
Elliott, 22, is one of NASCAR’s budding stars. His peers believe he’ll replace Earnhardt in fan voting for NASCAR’s most popular driver, and Hendrick gave him a boost this year by switching Elliott’s car number to No. 9 so the driver can honor his Hall of Fame father, Bill.
“Car looks good. I’m a little biased, but the 9 looks good on top of the scoring pylon,” Elliott said after Thursday night’s victory. “I would love to have it there more throughout the season.”
Elliott is still seeking his first points victory in the Cup Series after five runner-up finishes last season. He won his Daytona qualifying race last year, too, but ran out of gas racing for the Daytona 500 victory.
Elliott will be Hendrick’s answer to the Ford brigade that has so far been led by Team Penske at Daytona. Ford drivers won all four restrictor-plate races last season, including Kurt Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500, and Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney have one win apiece this Speedweeks. Blaney’s victory in the qualifying race put him on the second row for the start next to Elliott, and teammate Joey Logano is right behind Blaney.
Logano, winner of the Daytona 500 in 2015, has two runner-up finishes in Speedweeks behind his teammates. Keselowski is the Las Vegas betting favorite to win the race, but Blaney absolutely should be in the mix. In fact, Roger Penske appears to have three entries all capable of winning the race.
Should they find themselves lined up 1-2-3 – the way they’ve run most of Speedweeks – on the final lap of the Daytona 500, they know the boss expects one of them to win.
“Our team orders are to work together as best you can, but it’s a race. Roger expects us to race for wins,” Logano said. “It’s a challenge when you’re all racing for the win. There’s a lot on the line. That’s probably one of the most challenging times for teammates, is to be able to work together. It’s probably the most stress on a relationship, with a team.”
Ford drivers have speed, but 2007 winner Kevin Harvick noted the cars are much harder to drive under new NASCAR technical regulations. The sentiment was shared by Busch, who, like Harvick, is considered among the most talented in car control, so their gripes could be an indication NASCAR has gone too far.
“I wasn’t very comfortable to pull on the wheel like I needed to, to be aggressive in making moves and blocking, all the things I needed,” Harvick said after his qualifying race.
If teams can’t make some gains by Sunday, passing could be difficult in the race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., winner of two plate races last season, was admittedly “greedy” in his qualifying race when he made aggressive moves to try to figure out the draft. He twice spun competitors not because he made contact with their cars, but because Stenhouse sucked the air away from their cars and caused them to lose control.
If drivers can’t solve that problem before the Daytona 500, it could be an ugly race. NASCAR could have a single-car parade for some 400 miles, or the lack of experience in the field could lead to youthful mistakes.
Remember, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired in three consecutive seasons. Carl Edwards walked away after the 2016 season and Matt Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, has no ride in 2018. The Daytona 500 also will be Danica Patrick’s NASCAR finale.
The rapid driver turnover has created a 40-car field that includes six drivers under age 30 in the first eight spots.
Also racing in the Daytona 500 is 66-year-old Mark Thompson. He’s the anomaly, though, as the field has a considerably youthful feel.
“If you look at the starting grid from the Daytona 500 five years ago and you look at it today, it’s just amazing how much the image of NASCAR has changed,” said 2016 race winner Denny Hamlin, who will start second.
“I’d say four or five years ago, there was so many older veteran drivers that it was just very calm for a long period of the race, and I think that this year with the big youth movement, it has a potential to be more on edge for a longer period of time.”