Daytona 500 Preview

Welcome back NASCAR, Happy Daytona Day!

It really feels like a holiday deserving of a Hallmark card. It goes like this: Thanksgiving, then Christmas season, New Year's Eve, Super Bowl and closes with the Daytona 500. That's about the timeline of off-time between races for drivers. Sunday's 2018 version of the Daytona 500 is the 60th running. Start those engines, drop that green flag, and let's get this party going!

But let's get our bets in first.

We should all have a better feel for how they're going to run this week after watching the 75-lap Clash last Sunday won by Team Penske's Brad Keselowski. The cars had some burst, they were fast, but also loose. A couple drivers stood out handling the changes better and they're the same guys that have also been dominating plate races the past three seasons.

There's no ride-height rule for the restrictor-plate races any more, so the crews are taking advantage of it to the fullest by basically dropping the cars all the way to the asphalt. They look like a bunch of low-riders out there, but the aero effect is more speed. The Fords look like they'll continue to dominate, Toyota is almost there as an equal and Chevrolet is still a little behind despite having the new body design of the Camaro ZL1.

“My outlook is very positive," said two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson (15/1) regarding the new Camaro. "When you look what we did with the previous generation car, we had five seasons with no upgrades and still stayed awfully competitive. We’re going to be in much better shape this season from a competition standpoint."

The Camaro was fast by itself during qualifying and single lap simulations -- Alex Bowman in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 won the pole on Sunday, but once the cars got all jumbled together in the draft, the cream rose to the top with the Penske Fords and Joe Gibbs Toyotas looking the best, again.

Long term regarding the season championship, the final analysis on the new Camaro will be how it fares on the 1.5-and 2-mile tracks. A Las Vegas Motor Speedway test session Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 saw Kyle Larson's Camaro post the fastest speeds in three of the four sessions which featured a representative from every team. Rookie William Byron's Camaro was fastest in the session Larson wasn't. That will be the story next week on Atlanta's 1.5-mile track. But let's get back to talking plates.

Keselowski lead the charge in the Clash while teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano basically blocked while sitting second and third in the last few laps. Keselowski leads the series with six restrictor-plate wins, but the Clash win was his first of any kind at Daytona in February.

“It’s a great way to start the season with the Miller Lite Ford, and I’m happy for everyone on my team,” said Keselowski, who tweeted before the race he was going to win. “This is the first time I won anything in Speedweeks. I feel like I’ve choked them away. It’s nice to not choke this one away. Definitely, a good day and I’m really thankful for the team. Completely different package than what we’ve had here at Daytona ever before. Guys had to show up with a way different car and that’s a testament to everyone at Team Penske to work on it and do that. Good day, great start, two more to go.”

The two more to go would be Thursday's Can-Am Duels and Sunday's Daytona 500. Also, Miller Lite rang a bell in his quote because they won't be the main sponsor on his No. 2 in the 500. Actually, there are no beer sponsors in the 500 this year -- Kevin Harvick isn't using Busch beer, either.

Five drivers have won the Clash and Daytona 500 in the same season, the last being Denny Hamlin in 2016. By the way, eight drivers have won the a Can-Am Duel and 500 in the same year, the last being Matt Kenseth in 2012.

Keselowski is the 8-to-1 favorite to win the 500 just because of being the best in plate races. Team Penske has the best plate program. His teammates are all just as good. However, the Daytona 500 has kind of been a thorn in his side with a best of third-place in 2014, but a 29th-place average finish in his last three attempts.

It's not unusual for the Daytona 500 to start playing mind games with great drivers where it takes an entire career to win it or sometimes never. Dale Earnhardt was the best superspeedway driver of all-time and dominated the exhibition races during Speedweeks, but it took him 20 seasons before winning his first (1998) despite having the best car in half those starts. It took Darrell Waltrip 17 years to win (1989). Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte and Las Vegan Kyle Busch never won the biggest race in their sport over their great careers.

“The number-one, most important thing is trying to win the Daytona 500," said Kyle Busch when asked about things to accomplish before his career is over. "After that, we will try to win the Coke 600 at Charlotte, or really, any Cup points race at Charlotte, which I haven’t been able to do, yet."

Busch, who drives the No. 18 Gibbs Toyota, is the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook's 9/2 favorite to win the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.

Keselowski's teammate, Joey Logano (10/1), got his first Daytona 500 win in 2015 and followed it up with sixth-place finishes in 2016 and 2017. He had some interesting comments regarding the elimination of ride-height rules effect following his second-place finish in the Clash.

“Yeah, I just think the runs happen quicker,” said Logano, who is listed at 8-to-1 odds to win the championship. “It’s kind of like in the Xfinity race. In the Xfinity races, the cars get these huge runs, and they’re hard to stop. This is maybe not quite to that extent, but the runs you can build are way bigger than they used to be. But that bubble, that imaginary bubble in between the cars that we always talk about, seems to be stopping us just as hard. So we get a bigger run, but it kind of stops us just as much.”

It was fun watching those runs in the Clash, with bursts of speed for passing. Loved it. They were almost all getting loose, though. But Team Penske seemed the tightest of all, finishing 1-2, and almost 1-2-3. It was a crazy, hard to catch, three-car freight train hooked in the draft.

Ryan Blaney is in his first season as an official Penske driver and finished second in last years Daytona 500 while driving the Wood Brother's famed No. 21, which had its equipment built by Penske. I believe Blaney offers the most value among all drivers at 25-to-1 odds.

And if looking for the best long shot on the board, try Paul Menard at 50/1 odds. He's taken over the No. 21 from Blaney and last year at Daytona he was fifth and third in the two races, the best average among all drivers.

Another top Ford driver is Roush Fenway's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who burst on to the scene last season with his first two career wins both coming on plates races. Those wins at Daytona and Talladega last year paid chunky odds, but the cat is out of the bag now and he's only offered at 12/1.

Ford has won the past three points-paying races at Daytona and the last five at Talladega. Las Vegan Kurt Busch (20/1) contributed to that nice run by winning the Daytona 500 last season in the first race after Stewat Haas Racing switched from Chevrolet to Ford. Kevin Harvick (10/1) won the 2007 Daytona 500 and is also part of SHR, as well as Aric Almirola (30/1) who takes over the No. 10 for Danica Patrick (100/1) who is now in the No. 7. This will be Patrick's last race in NASCAR. She'll also race in the Indianapolis 500 and then call it quits. Clint Bowyer (20/1) is in the SHR No. 14 and finished second in the July Daytona race last season. He loves plate racing, too.

“Can you imagine what it would be like if I won the Daytona 500?” Bowyer said with a laugh. “I think NASCAR would have a tough time finding me for those New York interviews on Monday and Tuesday. You know those yachts in the harbor in Daytona? I wouldn’t care whose it was, I’d take one of them to the Caribbean.”

Now, having touted all the quality Fords out of respect for their recent accomplishments, I'm rolling with the Gibbs Toyota driven by Denny Hamlin (10/1) just because he's got this Daytona drafting thing down well and he's got a car that is on par with the Penske trio. He starts on the front row and he's got seven career wins during Daytona Speedweeks between the three events. He'll need some help, but with three laps to go there are no teams and drivers just want to push someone fast to propel themselves forward. Hamlin is fast and everyone knows it. He'll have plenty of friends late from all manufacturers.

I'll also be rooting for another Las Vegan, Brendan Gaughan, who drives the No. 62 Chevy for Beard Motorsports. Last season, in a limited schedule, Gaughan finished 11th and seventh in the two Daytona races. Those finishes have given other drivers confidence to trust Gaughan in the draft and I expect another quality finish.

Brendan's father, Michael Gaughan, owns the South Point and they'll be hosting a Daytona 500 party in the showroom which features a giant HD movie screen and booming audio system. I've never ever watched a NASCAR like this before last year. Too cool. Cheap drinks and prizes given away through race. So come on out and root for our three Las Vegas drivers and show some city pride. It was kind of cool last season when local guy Kurt Busch won it.

Match-up and Prop advice: It's too random to get involved with too much exotic wagers, so be careful. Split the usual bank roll up with much more weight being on the odds to win and choose a few more drivers than usual. Back to usual betting patterns next week at Atlanta.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #12 Ryan Blaney (25/1)
3) #22 Joey Logano (10/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (20/1)