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Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM

Daytona 500 Preview

Jimmie Johnson's win last week at the Clash gave us all kinds of information to help us handicap Sunday's 61st running of the Daytona 500, but ultimately what it still comes down in restrictor-plate racing is needing a lot of luck to cash. This version of plate racing is similar to the past few seasons with a few subtle differences.

The first thing to recognize is the new Mustang GT body is almost as good as the Fusion body that has dominated plate races for Ford over the past four seasons. The Penske Fords, including Paul Menard in the No. 21, dominated the Clash. Menard led 51 of the 59 laps in the Clash and no one could make the pass so Johnson forced the issue, Menard tried to block and it caused 14 of the 20 cars on the track to pile-up. But those are the things drivers have to do to win because passing is so hard.

“Yeah, I think so," Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said Wednesday about needing to be aggressive to win. "I think plate racing is all about aggressiveness now and making the right moves and your spotter giving you that information of when to move down, which lane is coming. I feel like that communication between you and your spotter is getting more and more important.

"I feel like the races that we won in 2017 if it wasn’t for our spotter, there was no way I would have made some of the correct moves to get to the front or stay in the front, so it’s just part of it. It’s fun, but it’s also I don’t want to say dangerous, but you’re living on the edge as far as running into people, cutting it too close, so it’s just part of it.”

Both of Stenhouse's two career wins came in plate races and his Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 has the same Roush-Yates engines as Team Penske. He's 14-to-1 to win Sunday. The best thing about betting on Stenhouse is that he doesn't care who he rattles. His only goal is to win and he knows his best four chances are each of the plate races so this race is magnified for him to make something happen.

Passing is tough and at no time during the Clash did we see the low-line threaten the freight train up top on the high line. My hope Sunday is that we'll see some of the top teams figure things out down low so it's not just one single file line of nothing for 197 laps and then we have a couple spectacular wrecks late with drivers up front trying to make that winning move.

"I don’t think there’s a safe place when you’re out there," said 2018 Cup Champion Joey Logano. "When you’re running sixth or seventh you can see the leaders dicing it out, throwing blocks, doing things, but if you’re sixth or seventh you’re right behind that and most likely you’re gonna get caught up in it.

"I got lucky the other night that I got through it, but most likely if you’re anywhere close to it, you’re not gonna make it through. It’s the same if you’re the leader, then at least you’re in control of the blocks that are there, you can control your destiny a little bit better. I’d rather be in that spot.”

Yes, everyone should be shooting to get up front because chances are unless the pit crew fails the leader has a chance to lead tons of laps because of hardly any passing. Last year's Daytona 500 saw Penske's Ryan Blaney lead 118 laps which are the most laps led in any single Daytona 500 among all active drivers. That's boring and hopefully with this being the last race featuring the package the issue fixes itself with the new car at Talladega.

Something that really stood out in the Clash for those that were trying to make passes was the side-draft which Daniel Suarez in his new Stewart Haas Racing No. 41 Ford seemed to have the most success with. Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 winner, also had things figured well with the side-draft.

"Any time you can get up beside somebody by an inch or so it just is such a big parachute on either side of the car," said Hamlin. "The moment you can break that plane, it’s amazing how much these cars get drug back versus cars in the past.

"Really, I try to work on the defense of that more than anything. You know it’s there. You just want to put yourself in the position that if you’re going to get passed, put them on the correct side of what side you want to get passed on that way you have a good defense when you get beside them.”

Hamlin has two plate wins over his career but comes off a winless season for the first time in his career. Just like Johnson last week, Hamlin is starving for a win, has a new crew chief, and will do just about anything to win. He likes his chances Sunday.

“Pretty optimistic," Hamlin said Wednesday. "I would say about the same as usual to be honest with you. I thought The Clash kind of gave us an indication that we were able to kind of get up front even starting last. We got up front in a timely manner. No surprises really from that, so there’s no reason to think otherwise that we can’t win.”

The thing to like about Hamlin, besides his 12-to-1 odds, is that he always finds his way to the front. In five of the past eight Daytona 500's he's started on the front row of the last restart.

Hamlin would be my top selection to those who hate Ford. The top Chevy I'd look at is Las Vegan Kurt Busch (14/1) in his new Chip Ganassi No. 1 ride who finished second last week in the Clash. So what it is about the Fords that are so good?

“Fast race cars," said Blaney, who is 12-to-1 to win in his No. 12. "Roush Yates engines have always been great here. Great drivers. I think Brad (Keselowski) and Joey are two of the best plate racers right now and it shows with how many they have won. We all work together and have each others back. At the end of the race we are allowed to go race for it. I think that is the great thing about our company."

Ford has won five of the past nine races at Daytona and seven straight at Talladega Superspeedway, the other restrictor-plate race track. Brad Keselowski leads all active drivers with six plate wins and Logano has four plate wins as well. Blaney looks just as good and Menard will be strong as well. That's four strong cars and then you throw in Roush with Stenhouse and 2008 Daytona winner Ryan Newman in his new No. 6 ride.

And then after that, you've got all those SHR Fords with 2007 Daytona champ Kevin Harvick who comes in as the 8-to-1 co-favorite to win with Keselowski and Logano. Clint Bowyer has two plate wins, Suarez looks really good and Aric Almirola's only two career Cup wins have been in plate races. He should have three plate wins, but Austin Dillon punted him out of the way on the last lap in last years Daytona 500.

“Did I ever have a moment where behind closed doors I stomped my feet and hit some things? Maybe,’’ Almirola said with a smile this week. “In that time, in that moment, it was more important for me to go out and be a good representation for my sponsors and my partners and my kids."

Almirola is 12-to-1 to win this week and I actually like him better Sunday than all his SHR teammates.

As for betting strategy, the volatility of the track makes it a crap shoot which changes a normal betting strategy from races on non-plate tracks. Qualifying doesn't matter much, nor does practices. Luck plays a major role so betting match-ups aren't as attractive like they are on tracks where practice speeds transfer well into race day. For plate races, I like to bet five or six drivers and stagger my allotted bankroll on a favorite or two a mid-level driver and then a long shot or two. The best longshots of the bunch are Menard (40/1), Newman (50/1) and last years Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon (40/1).

For the win, I'm going with Keselowski to capture his first Daytona 500 and I think it will come down to a battle between him and his teammates with Hamlin and Kurt Busch doing the final lap pressing on them.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
4) #1 Kurt Busch (14/1)
5) #12 Ryan Blaney (12/1)

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