Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:00 AM

Advance Auto Parts Clash

Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway is a 75-lap shootout between 20 of the best drivers in NASCAR. And while it's a non-points race and the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series officially begins Feb. 17 with the Daytona 500, the Clash is the green light for everyone that NASCAR is back.

So let's get this 2019 NASCAR party started!

The participating drivers became eligible by either winning a pole last season, a Daytona 500 pole, a former Daytona 500 champion or participate in last season's playoffs. That's a total of 20 drivers, the best of the best. No jalopies to get in the way, either.

“The Clash is a great event and always an exciting way to kick off the season," said Ryan Newman who makes his debut Sunday for Roush Fenway Racing driving the No. 6 Ford. "It is a limited, All-Star field, with a winner take all mentality and it usually leads to some thrilling racing. It would be a great opportunity to kick off the season with a win and get momentum rolling heading into the Daytona 500.”

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook posted three Fords drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski -- as the co-favorites at 7-to-1 odds (Bet $100 to win $700).

Ford has won five of the past nine points races at Daytona's 2.5-mile high-banked layout and Keselowski won the Clash last season and the year before it was Logano. Ford has also won the past seven races at Talladega Superspeedway, the other track requiring restrictor-plates.

There's not much changed on the plate cars we'll be watching the next two weeks from last season which certainly has Ford deserving to be the favorite. The Ford body has changed from the Fusion to the new Mustang GT body. Ford says the aerodynamics aren't much different and might even be better, but can it really be just as good as the Fusion? Those Fords were elite and now they're not the same cars. I'm skeptical of change.

And the huge change will be in two weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway when the new rules package goes into effect. NASCAR tested the new package at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week and the cars were slower than Xfinity cars. Horsepower dropped from 750 to 550 and drivers kept the pedal mashed to the floor all the way around the 1.5-mile layout, which is unheard of. NASCAR wants drivers in packs and close, but passing appeared difficult at the test as well.

“I think this year with there being so many different changes within the cars themselves, it’s going to be pretty much a reset for everyone,” said Denny Hamlin. “That allows us to get back to square one. I’m working with a new crew chief (Chris Gabehart) who are coming from the Xfinity side, so he’s got more of a clean slate to kind of work from now.

“He doesn’t have to look at too many old notes because of the drastic change in the cars, so it allows us all to just come in here like a new race team, like a lot of our teams will be this year, to come in there refocused and get ready to hopefully win the first race of the season.”

Anyway, more on that as Atlanta approaches. But Hamlin is a guy I love to bust out in 2019 after not winning any races last season, the first time in his career he's gone winless in a season. More on Hamlin in a bit.

The cool thing about the Clash besides no jalopies, NASCAR finally being back, betting on it, and thunderous sounds is that it gives a nice preview to what we'll see next week in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. This race will show whether or not the new Mustang is as good as the Fusion. Last season the new Camaro driven by Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500, but then the brand didn't win against until August.

Last season Keselowski, Logano and Penske teammate Ryan Blaney had the goods to win just about every plate race, including the Clash and both Duel races. Erik Jones won the July Daytona race for his first career Cup win in his first season driving a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Logano would win the spring Talladega race and Aric Almirola would win the fall Talladega race in his No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Ford.

So who is best equipped to keep Ford from winning?

How about a couple guys who didn't win any races last season.

Hamlin is a three-time Clash winner and one of six drivers to win the Clash and Daytona 500 in the same year (2016). He won this race as a rookie in 2006. He's been on the front row on the final restart in five of the past eight Daytona 500's but trouble found him in most of those. But most importantly, he knows how to play the game in getting into position to win. Besides his natural plate racing skills, I like his desperation after having to think about no wins in 2018 all winter long.

“Certainly it’s not up to the expectations of what I believe we’re capable of, but sometimes in sports you just have those seasons where things don’t go right or you just don’t get the job done at the level you expect to and you’ve got to reset and refocus from that,” Hamlin said of last year’s struggles.

Yes, refocus. I like that. He's also got a new car chief with Eric Phillips who came with new crew chief Chris Gabehart from the Gibbs Xfinity Series team. What better way to show off than winning the Clash which then breeds confidence into winning the Daytona 500. Get the monkey off the back right away. Winning means everything to Hamlin after last year so I like, no I love, the idea of him being in a great plate car doing anything he can to get a win at a place he's so familiar with.

In the same breath, Jimmie Johnson is 25-to-1 to win. He didn't win in a season for the first time in his career. His 16 Clash starts are the most among all active driver, winning it in 2005. He's a three-time winner in points-paying races at Daytona as well, but what I like about him this week, besides the odds, is the new chapter of seven-time Johnson's career. He's got a new sponsor (Ally) and a new crew chief (Kevin Meendering) for the first time in his Cup career.

It'll be a while before I get used to Johnson's No. 48 not being sponsored by Lowe's with Chad Knaus calling the shots atop the box like its been since Johnson's rookie year of 2002, but I do think the re-boot for the No. 48 team is going to go well. And right out of the gate to prove it, I think Johnson will do whatever it takes to win.

That's all I got for now. Cheers, everyone, I missed Y'all. I missed NASCAR, I missed the betting action. I missed winning. And dang, that Super Bowl was brutal to my bankroll.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
2) #48 Jimmie Johnson (25/1)
3) #1 Kurt Busch (16/1)
4) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (20/1)
5) #20 Erik Jones (25/1)

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