5 key takeaways from the first weekend of Speedweeks

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, ranks as one of the favorites to win the Daytona 500 after the first weekend of 2016 Speedweeks.

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The first weekend of Daytona Speedweeks 2016 is in the books, with the biggest race of the season less than a week away. Congratulations to Denny Hamlin for winning the Sprint Unlimited and Chase Elliott for grabbing the pole in the Daytona 500.

We are looking forward to a great week of racing, with the Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday night, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Friday night, the XFINITY Series race Saturday and the Daytona 500 on Sunday. It should be sensational.

Here are five takeaways after the first weekend at the World Center of Racing:


5. Save your stuff  Between now and the Daytona 500, there will be 5 hours and 55 minutes of Sprint Cup practice and the qualifying races. The No. 1 goal of every contending driver during that time is to not wreck and have to go to a backup car. There’s a reason drivers have a primary car and a backup car: The primary car is just a little bit better.

"We want to try to make sure we have this car next Sunday," said pole-winner Elliott. "That’s the main goal. Try to be smart on Thursday. Know if we can get through these Duels, we can start on the front row regardless, that’s important."

The Sprint Unlimited was a total and complete wreckfest. Drivers will be much more circumspect this week, especially in practice.

4. Safety — The most terrifying moment of Speedweeks came in the Sprint Unlimited, when Brian Vickers cut a right-rear tire heading into Turn 1. Vickers’ car turned left, made contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. then went back up the track, with the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet going hard into the outside wall, driver’s-side first. It was a scary, scary moment.

Vickers, of course, has had numerous health issues over the years, so everyone watching held their collective breath for a moment. Fortunately, he was unscathed, a testament to how far safety has come in the last 15 years.

3. Coincidences — If you’re one of those NASCAR conspiracy theorists — and I’m definitely not one — take a look at the last four Daytona 500 poles. In 2013, Danica Patrick won the pole in her first 500. A year later, the No. 3 hit the track for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death and Austin Dillon took the pole. Last year, it was Jeff Gordon in his final season and now rookie Elliott becomes the youngest winner in Daytona 500 history.

Like I said, I don’t believe in conspiracy theories and I do believe all four of these poles are 100 percent legit. That said my pole favorites for the 2017 Daytona 500 are now Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace.

2. Charters — In recent years, NASCAR has talked a lot about transparency, which is one reason why they made public the P1-P5 penalty guidelines, added the pit road cameras and in general tried to make the sport clearer for race fans. And that’s a very, very good thing.

One thing that will become less transparent this year is purse money. NASCAR will no longer disclose how much money teams earn in a given race. That was negotiated in as part of the Charter deal. In terms of NASCAR and the teams, the Charter system appears to be a big win for the sport. But in terms of transparency for the fans, not disclosing purse money is a step backward.

1. The favorites — There are a lot of fast cars in Daytona. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and the Penske Fords look especially good. But if I were a betting man, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the guy I’d pick to win the 500. He will once again be driving "Amelia," a superspeedway car built by his former crew chief Steve Letarte.

With Amelia, last year Earnhardt had two victories and an average finish of 1.75 in the four restrictor-plate races. Can’t do much better than that. As noted earlier, though, Earnhardt has to make it through the practice and his Duel race in one piece.

The other guy I really like to win the 500 is Matt Kenseth, who has won it twice already. He will be awfully tough, for sure, and so will Joey Logano and Hamlin.