The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is one race old and of course there’s plenty to discuss. Our experts weigh in on the hot topics following the 60th running of the Daytona 500:
The most impressive Daytona 500 driver was _____:
Mike Clay, ESPN: I hesitate to take too much away from the randomness that is a superspeedway race, but Ryan Blaney leading over half the laps — 118 to be exact — was super impressive. The 24-year-old finished ninth in points last year and upgraded to Penske Racing during the offseason. Expect him to be a weekly contender moving forward.
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Blaney. Leading more than 100 laps in the Daytona 500 is an enormous accomplishment, particularly for a young Cup driver. Daytona is a unique discipline and Blaney has established himself as a very good restrictor-plate driver, which gives Penske quite the trio of drivers.
Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: Denny Hamlin had a weird week (Adderall?!) and during the race he had multiple chances to blow it … basically did … but then somehow still came back and nearly won the race. He was easily one of the prerace favorites and a name that everyone continually pointed to this week as a potential “best drafter now that Dale Jr. is gone” candidate. He did nothing to erode that opinion.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Austin Dillon. Driving the No. 3 brings with it a ton of pressure, and he won.
Marty Smith, ESPN: Darrell Wallace Jr. What a driver. What a story. What a reaction. Fantastic finish. Proud momma. Tears of joy. Pioneering world champion shoutouts. Most popular peers shoutouts. And he didn’t even win. It was a landmark day.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: The save Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made at the end of the first segment was crazy good, but I have to take Blaney. Not just for his number of laps led, but the way he handled staying in front of two lanes of traffic, and controlling a loose car, especially late. Since 1990, only three drivers have led more than 110 laps in a Daytona 500 — Blaney, Davey Allison in 1992 and Dale Earnhardt in 1990.
Are you buying Bubba Wallace as a top-10 driver in points?
Clay: Not just yet. I believe Richard Petty made a good move putting Wallace in the 43, but we’re talking about a 24-year-old driver who didn’t win a race during his time in the Xfinity Series and has five career Cup races under his belt. I won’t be surprised if Wallace wins a race and sneaks into the playoffs, but the field is too talented and proven to put him in the top 10 just yet.
Craven: No. But I would never diminish his accomplishments this week, which were very, very impressive. Year after year we see that Daytona success doesn’t necessarily translate to a season of success. Next week Atlanta is the first of the 1.5-mile tracks and success there carries more value going forward. I have Bubba between 15th to 20th in the standings this year, and I would consider that an impressive first full season.
McGee: No. His performance Sunday was truly incredible. It was really fun to watch the media folks who’d never covered a race but were in Daytona to cover Bubba and how he baptized them in the magic of the 500. But as I’ve been warning to Wallace fans all month, Richard Petty Motorsports is in so much flux right now, from a new driver to a new shop to a new manufacturer that’s also breaking in a new car. They also still need to secure sponsorship for half the 2018 season. So, there’s going to have to be some serious growing pains before RPM and Bubba are ready to do what they did at Daytona on a week-in, week-out basis. He is totally capable of running up front, but his cars aren’t there yet.
Pockrass: No because RPM is in transition. The Pettys were 24th in the owner points last year. They’re not going to improve that much in one year, especially when changing from Ford to Chevy, moving shops and starting a new RCR alliance. Maybe eventually … but not yet.
Smith: It’s way too early. Check back with me after the West Coast swing. People asked the same question about Trevor Bayne in 2011.
Willis: Not in his first full season, and not driving for RPM. Not to take anything away from Sunday’s run, but that type of racing only comes up in three of the remaining 35 races this season. And I’m not sure anybody outside the power teams (Gibbs, Penske, Hendrick, Furniture Row, Stewart-Haas and Ganassi) will crack the top 10 this year.
How do you feel about the state of the sport after Sunday’s race?
Clay: It’s no secret that money is a concern, so watching another week of cars getting destroyed is discouraging, but I’m optimistic that NASCAR is headed in the right direction. I was initially pessimistic about the segments (more cautions?!), but it grew on me as the 2017 season progressed. Of course, with so many household names hanging up their HANS devices in recent years, the key for NASCAR will be promoting the recent injection of talented youth. I know I’m excited to see who in the group rises to the top.
Craven: If NASCAR is to return as a growth story, we need personalities to emerge who intrigue, entertain and captivate fans. And key note — they must win races, lots of races. That’s what we got from Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. We have it in Kyle Busch. So who will emerge as “next”?
McGee: I feel the same. There’s still a lot of work to do. You can’t measure the health of NASCAR via Daytona just like you can’t gauge the health of the NFL via only the Super Bowl. Everything feels great at the big game. It won’t feel so great when the series gets back to empty regular-season grandstands.
Pockrass: The same as I did about it before the race. Until I see more checks being sent to teams and more close finishes on non-plate tracks, I won’t read too much into the Daytona 500.
Smith: The 60th 500 had some juice. No doubt. You could feel the juice. Let’s squeeze the juice and see if we can spin some lemonade.
Willis: I like where it’s going. This felt like a Daytona 500 that really highlighted the talented young drivers coming up through the ranks, not just in how they ran throughout SpeedWeeks, but the amount of attention they earned and the realization that the new NASCAR generation is upon us. At 27 years old, Dillon is the oldest driver to win a Cup race during 2018 SpeedWeeks.
Did Austin Dillon win the Daytona 500 with a clean move?
Clay: Dillon admitted he kept the pedal to the floor and went for the win, so I wouldn’t call it clean — I’d call it necessary.
Craven: It wasn’t a dirty move. The attitude is and always has been if you lift you lose. Any driver worth his salt would have raced the exact same way in the final lap of the Daytona 500 with a chance to win.
McGee: Aric Almirola wasn’t mad. He didn’t think it was dirty. And he was spun out of the lead entering the final set of turns of the Daytona 500. If he’s cool with it, so am I.
Pockrass: It was clean for the last lap of the Daytona 500. But there better be no “hold my watch” moments if it happens to Dillon at a future plate race.
Smith: Whether it’s clean matters not. And in a few weeks that will be even truer — especially since Almirola had no qualms. It’s the nature of competition. When the checkers are flying for the 500, courtesy and code disappear.
Willis: I’ll bow down to the opinion of anybody who’s driven a race car before, but having a chance to win a Daytona 500 could justify a dirty move. There are 39 drivers who have won a Daytona 500, including Dillon. There are 515 who have started a Daytona 500 and have never won one.