2018 Daytona 500 Preview

The Great American Race is upon us, and 40 [temporarily] optimistic teams will officially begin their reconstructions of the dream this Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. For those who may not know, the Daytona 500 is the most prestigious and sought-after race on the entire NASCAR calendar. Which, I suppose is akin to starting your next meal with the banana pudding at the expense of the green beans, but let’s move on.

The silly season is over, the exhibition events are in the books, and teams can finally hone in on the main event. For some outfits, like the #48 squad, that may entail borrowing another backup car from Rick Hendrick first. After all, you can only fit so many in a hauler…

While the Duels lacked a certain dramatic gravitas – mostly due to the fact each car was already assured a starting spot, and only half of the 40 cars were on the track at given time – they did provide a moderately informative preview of what’s to come on Sunday. Like my mother always said, “eat it, it’s better than nothing.” After 90 days of nothing, I’ll take whatever I can get at this point.


Racing at Daytona is very unique. The cars run what’s known as a restrictor-plate, and it’s exactly like it sounds; a metal plate that sits between the carburetor and the intake manifold to reduce the flow of air and fuel into the engine’s combustion chamber. The net effect of the restrictor-plate is a limit on horsepower, and therefore baseline speed. Originally implemented for safety, it was intended to keep cars out of orbit and on the track, long before the progressive dreams of Elon Musk.

Because of the horsepower limitations, the cars tend to clump into condensed packs, much like a rush-hour, freight train of chaos on I-77 here in Charlotte. However, do this at 200 mph, and obviously things get a bit more complicated (so much for safety).

“So, what makes one car faster than another,” you ask? Aerodynamic forces such as downforce, drag, and drafting all play critical roles at the longer tracks, but they are heroes and villains at restrictor plate tracks. These forces ultimately influence how the freight trains of cars go REALLY fast (or not). Drivers who can figuratively “see the air,” and teams who best manipulate these forces to their advantage, consistently rise to the top. Having solid teammates to work with on-track is pretty much a prerequisite to winning in this day and age.

To set the right fantasy expectations, if your driver completes all 200 laps, I’d say you’ve made a great pick.


This section is less about prognostication, and more about highlighting drivers catching my eye at a given moment. We all play in different formats and have different strategies, but hopefully this adds some value to your results. Good luck!


Denny Hamlin (Pit Stall Rating 73.23, 1st) – Over the last 5 Daytona races, Denny has a Pit Stall Rating of 73.23, the highest among active drivers. While his 2017 Daytona results were less than impressive, he did qualify on the front row this year (in race trim, mind you), and looked very solid in the Duel. Even though I personally prefer the Fords in this race, I still expect him to secure a top-10 finish and compete for the checkered flag. It will be interesting to see how well the Gibbs cars can work together.

Joey Logano (Pit Stall Rating 56.03, 5th) – In full disclosure, the #22 is my personal pick to win this race. I’ll be honest, I’m still bitter about several epic letdowns from the #22 team last season, but alas, it’s a new year. As they say, forgiveness empowers the victim, not the perpetrator. Joey, I forgive you. Man, that is empowering! You know what else is empowering? Those Roush-Yates engines in the Penske Fords. Joey has a Pit Stall Rating of 56.03 over the last 5 Daytona events, which includes 3 finishes in the top-6, and an average loop rating of 81.8 (9th). Order me up a Coke and smile, buddy!

Brad Keselowski (Pit Stall Rating 42.69, 17th) – Brad won The Clash, and was running top-3 with his other Penske brethren in Duel #1 before Jamie McMurray, in a typical “steal-all-the-eggs-from-the-nest-wherever-I-can,” Jamie Mac fashion, filled a void Brad mistakenly thought he could reclaim. The #2 team will roll out a backup from the top shelf of the hauler and start from the rear of the field, but that doesn’t dissuade me much. In a way, I think the mentality a driver requires in order to patiently advance through the field, tends to keep them aggressively focused on the task at hand, and less focused on driving defensively near the front. Besides, nobody is better at magically pulling proverbial rabbits from the strategy hat than Paul Wolfe. Brad’s numbers are much better at Talladega than Daytona, but I still think the Brad will get Stage 1 points, one way or another.

Ryan Blaney (Pit Stall Rating 61.50, 4th) – Speaking of loop rating, guess who has the highest? That’s right folks, Ryan Blaney at 94.1. Blaney finished 2nd in last year’s 500 with Wood Brothers Racing, but now takes over the #12 for Roger Penske. With Roush-Yates power under the hood of yet another Ford (see the theme developing here?), and two teammates highlighted above, I have high expectations. Ryan runs very well here considering his youth and inexperience, and simply needs to stay patient to close out this race cleanly.

Kurt Busch (Pit Stall Rating, 65.37, 2nd) – I was going to make fun of Kurt’s age, then I realized I’m only one year his junior. Let’s focus on wisdom here instead. Kurt has always been a contender at the plate tracks, and while I don’t intend to sell anyone from Stewart-Haas short, I just think they’re a step behind Penske heading into this race. Not only does Kurt have a knack for closing sneaky-well in these races, but depending on your format, there are only a handful of tracks where using him makes more sense than other drivers (i.e. Kevin Harvick, who you can literally start anywhere). This, along with the road courses, is one of those spots. His Pit Stall Rating of 65.37 is second only to Denny Hamlin during the last five races at Daytona.

THE DRAFT (dark horse)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Pit Stall Rating 49.81, 10th) – Stenhouse Jr. is a good plate driver, but he’s still a risk in my opinion. Last year, Ricky won 2 restrictor-plate races, but had 3 DNFs outside the top-25 in the others, including Indianapolis. If you’re looking to spot-start a high risk/reward guy to save other drivers for later, look no further. This team’s bread and butter is their plate program, and their best chance at making the Playoff is with a checkered flag.

THE DRAG (avoid)

Chase Elliott (Pit Stall Rating 24.98, 29th) – Yes, he is the new fan-favorite; Yes, he looked like a Cinderella story in last year’s 500 for most of the race; Yes, seeing that #9 car is badass; Yes, he has the talent to win a ton of races, and will. However, I simply don’t like backing people without any data whatsoever to support the claim. Chase has finished 37th, 32nd, 14th, and 22nd in his four starts at Daytona. Who knows, he may very well win the thing this year. But, if we’re talking about maximum fantasy uses – and a significant portion of you deal with that variable – I think Chase is better utilized at other tracks where he has more reliable metrics. Resist the temptation for a week, for better or worse.

AVG FINISH POSITION @ DAYTONA (all races since 2011)

13.4 #11 Denny Hamlin
14.3 #22 Joey Logano
15.2 #3 Austin Dillon
16.6 #31 Ryan Newman
16.8 #41 Kurt Busch

AVG LOOP RATINGS @ DAYTONA (last 5 overall races)

94.1 #12 Ryan Blaney
92.2 #2 Brad Keselowski
90.8 #11 Denny Hamlin
88.1 #42 Kyle Larson
87.6 #41 Kurt Busch

One Response to “2018 Daytona 500 Preview”

  1. I shouldn’t have read this when I was hungry, now I’m ready for literal banana pudding as well as the race! Great insights Dan