SANDERS: Fords And Hendrick Motorsports Look To Be 2019 Daytona 500 Favoritesby Benjamin Sanders February 16, 2019 0 comments
An offseason of change and speculation has finally commenced, and race cars are back on track on the storied high-banks of Daytona. New cars, drivers, paint schemes and rules dominated offseason chatter, but now the talk stops and racing begin for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.
Ford has a new body on its car with the 2019 Mustang to compete with the Chevrolet Camaro and Toyota Camry. The mixture of the low ride height, flat, broad sides and high speeds in the final restrictor plate race of the modern era, so far, has made the racing lackluster with the high line being dominant. This has been a feature of the gen-six car, which makes track position, pit strategy and side drafting more important than ever.
Handling will become a premium as the week goes on as the temperatures increase. The Daytona track surface has started to lose grip and with the forecasted temperatures, tires will have limited grip, and cars will need to use all of the track to keep their cars out of the SAFER barriers and each other. Austin Dillon tweeted about how difficult it was to hang onto his car during the Duel, and it was visible with cars like Jamie McMurray struggling to get to the rear bumper of the preceding car.
Once again, the Fords are fast. It doesn’t matter if it is a Mustang fielded by Team Penske, The Wood Brothers, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing or Front Row Motorsports. Ford dominated both duels with Kevin Harvick winning the first Gander RV Duel, taking and holding the lead after early pit stops and was followed by manufacturer teammates Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard. The second Gander RV Duel was dominated by Clint Bowyer but won by Joey Logano after an incredible move from fourth to first on the final lap. Unfortunately, two drivers will miss the race. Ryan Truex, making his first Cup start since 2014, who had a windshield brace fail, causing high drag and Joey Gase. Parker Kligerman and Brendan Gaughan raced their way in to the big race.
Logano, the defending series champion has to be the favorite. He is brimming with confidence and once again displayed his drafting prowess. Ford Performance teammate Menard may have the best car in Daytona, as he dominated the Clash and finished in top-three in his Duel. Ryan Blaney led the most laps in last year’s Daytona 500 and cannot be taken lightly. Additionally, Daniel Suarez’s Mustang handles well in the draft and is able to make aggressive moves, but he is struggling to find others to work with him. He is eager to impress his new team and prove his doubters wrong.
Ford’s biggest rival appears to be the Hendrick Chevrolet’s. All four cars qualified in the top-four positions and showed speed on Thursday. William Byron was able to battle through the pack, and Chase Elliott could maneuver and side draft through the single-line file. Veteran team leader and two-time Daytona 500 champion, Jimmie Johnson has been in the center of the news all week for his involvement of two accidents in Daytona’s preliminary events. Johnson has struggled on plate tracks recently and tends to be the cause or involved in the cause of a multitude of wrecks. Johnson isn’t fully to blame as the air is moving the cars viciously in the draft in this current aero package.
Denny Hamlin looks to be Toyota’s best bet for Daytona 500 glory after running at the front in all the events so far, and he is able to use his savvy to maneuver through the pack. He is underrated at restrictor plate tracks but knows how to not only lead but use the air to move forward.
With the advent of stage racing, drivers have refrained from running by the wall over the past two seasons and have been more desperate in the pack, which caused the prior two 500’s to be mired with multi-car accidents. In fact, the last two Daytona 500 winners, Dillon and Kurt Busch, led one lap a piece, which makes this race one of the most unpredictable of the season.
The only known is that the Daytona 500 is a special and prestigious on the schedule. The results a driver has in this race can define their career and someone will go into the history books on Sunday afternoon.
Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images