With the first weekend of Daytona Speedweeks now history and the Daytona 500 a week away, the focus of the Great American Race is becoming clearer.
Speedweeks got off to a fascinating start, which bodes well for the 59th running of the Daytona 500 (Feb. 26, 2 p.m. ET, FOX). Here are 10 things we learned so far in Daytona:
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukRussell LaBounty
After the Advance Auto Parts Clash got rained out Saturday night, NASCAR rescheduled it for Sunday morning. And guess what? It was tremendous — 75 laps of great racing with lots of slippin’ and slidin’ all over the place. Next year, let’s run it during the day.
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The Dale and Dale Show
There were two Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s on display at Daytona Sunday: The first was in the FOX television booth as analyst for the Advance Auto Parts Chase. The second was the driver who qualified the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the outside of Row 1 for the Daytona 500.
Honestly, I thought Earnhardt did a fine job in both roles. His commentary was interesting and insightful and obviously, he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a race car.
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The biggest smile
Yeah, there were lots of happy people in the world center of speed this weekend, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. But for my money, none seemed more elated than Clint Bowyer, who has completed the journey from purgatory back to a championship-capable race team in Stewart-Haas Racing. Good for him. He’s a great guy who’s earned his seat.
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Your cheatin' heart
NASCAR cracked down on the teams in inspection all weekend, trying to maintain law and order in the garage. Some teams, most notably Furniture Row Racing, had lengthy ordeals trying to get their cars cleared for practice, qualifying and/or racing. But eventually, everyone made it through.
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukJohn K Harrelson
One and done
Although NASCAR previously announced that cars taken to the garage are out of the race, it was still kind of jarring to see a couple of good cars eliminated from the Advance Auto Parts Clash for what looked like minor damage. This will be a much bigger deal next week if there’s a big crash that involves 10 or more cars in the Daytona 500. We could see some big cars knocked out early on.
All spun out
In last year’s Daytona 500, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott inexplicably spun out by themselves. In Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson did likewise not once, but twice. With Elliott and Earnhardt on the front row for the Daytona 500, things could be interesting.
Getting it done
Kudos to Danica Patrick for her fourth-place finish in the Advance Auto Parts Clash. Granted, the Clash doesn’t count for points and there were only 17 cars in the field, but still, she did an excellent job to finish in the top five in her first race in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
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Also praiseworthy in the Advance Auto Parts Clash was the performance of Alex Bowman, who finished third in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. That was best of he team’s three drivers and a great result given that he knows that was his lone race in the car this year, assuming Dale Earnhardt Jr. stays healthy.
, LAT Images www.latimages.co.ukNigel Kinrade
Denny Hamlin led the most laps in the Clash, pacing the field for 48 of 75 laps, most with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth on his bumper. But on the last lap, Hamlin lost his wingmen, opening the door for Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to gang up on him. Ultimately, Hamlin tried unsuccessfully to block Keselowski and Logano drove on to victory.
Whoever wins the Daytona 500 on Sunday almost certainly will have a great push from behind on the final lap. If the leader tries to break away by himself, he’ll be a sitting duck, just like Hamlin was.
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukMichael L. Levitt
The team to beat
Hmm … let’s see. Joey Logano won the Advance Auto Parts Clash in a Team Penske Ford, but the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas led the most laps and ran up front most of the way. After switching to Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing has been fast all weekend. And, oh, by the way, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. swept the front row in Daytona 500 qualifying for Hendrick Motorsports.
If you can look at all that and pick out a clear-cut favorite to win the Daytona 500, you’re a lot smarter than I am. Because what I’m seeing are four teams with almost equal chances to win the Great American Race next Sunday. And if what we’ve seen so far is any indication, it ought to be a sensational afternoon of racing. See you then.