The 2018 Daytona 500 featured a host of Cup series drivers paired with new teams. Our NASCAR experts rate each of the driver-team debuts and provide a look at each driver’s playoff chances. Drivers are listed in alphabetical order:
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: Grade: A. He executed a great race until the last mile. I’m not sure Almirola wins a race this year, but he makes a strong run at a playoff spot.
Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: “Devastated” is the word Almirola kept using Sunday, even over the radio while his wrecked car was still smoking, but there was a great deal to build on. I’m really curious to see what he does now that he’s in a ride that is a tier up from what he was in with RPM.
Alisha Miller, ESPN.com: A bump away from winning the sport’s Super Bowl, and there’s no question Almirola and SHR exceeded expectations. The 33-year-old will make the boss happy and sneak into the playoffs.
Scott Page, Jayski editor: This pairing couldn’t have asked for much more in their first race together. Almirola could steal a win, but I think he’s more likely to hang close to the playoff cutoff all season.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: A great 199.5 laps of a debut. Almirola will be on the bubble to make the playoffs and most likely will get in.
Marty Smith, ESPN: Excellent debut, as he led the race with a mile to go. He will win the first Pocono race in 2018 and make the playoffs. Fueled by bacon!
Scott Symmes, ESPN.com: Even though Almirola was “devastated” with the last-lap crash, the No. 10 team should be elated that it had the strength to nearly win after starting in the back of the field (backup car). Expect a hungry Almirola to be in the playoff mix all season, and he could make the cut with a break or two.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: He gets an A-minus, given that he was one Austin Dillon bumper from victory, something that car hasn’t sniffed in its time with Danica Patrick. His playoff chances are a 7 out of 10: He’s driving for one of the sport’s power teams and is capable of getting in on points.
Craven: Grade: A. Blaney has the most underrated crew chief in the garage, which means this combination easily makes the playoffs and makes a strong run at the title.
McGee: He was only the best car in the Daytona 500! Of all the new combos, I think this is the one that has the most immediate potential.
Miller: Blaney’s run in Daytona offered a ton of promise and possibility, and all of that potential will be funneled in one direction: playoffs.
Page: A+ for 118 laps led. Blaney will get a win or two this season and make the playoffs.
Pockrass: He won his duel, and no one will question his resolve, even with the mistake and crash in the Daytona 500. Blaney will win this year and make the playoffs.
Smith: Another excellent debut, as he was the class of the field Sunday. He, too, will win this year — more than once — and make the playoffs. I discussed this with Chase Elliott on Saturday at Daytona — once those two truly find the voices to match their passion, NASCAR will benefit greatly.
Symmes: Despite a somewhat disappointing seventh-place finish, Blaney was a star at Daytona, outperforming his two Penske teammates by winning a stage and leading the most laps. Anything short of a victory and playoff berth will be a surprise — and a huge disappointment for the No. 12 team.
Willis: It’s hard to give it anything but an A. The 118 laps led were the most in a Daytona 500 since Dale Earnhardt in 1990, and he also didn’t win the race. Playoff chances are a 9.5, he’s with a top-tier NASCAR team and he made the playoffs last year with the Wood Brothers.
Craven: Grade: B+. Bowman did a great job all week, as the comparisons to the former driver of the No. 88 are tough, but he’s handling it like a champ. Alex will win one race this year, qualifying him for the playoffs.
McGee: Won the pole, navigated the media obstacle course that comes with that and handled it all pretty well, with a semi-decent finish to boot.
Miller: Bowman’s debut was a fairly decent one: earning a pole and finishing with a top-20 is a solid start. My gut reaction is his playoff chances are at 65 percent.
Page: They probably walked away feeling like something was lacking, but Bowman ran up front most of the day, making for a good start to the season. I think he can run up front this year but might have trouble closing the deal. A playoff spot is questionable.
Pockrass: It was a great Speedweeks, as Bowman won the pole, an accomplishment no matter what anyone says about it being all car. He has a 50-50 chance to make the playoffs, as it would be a little surprise if he wins a race and is 10th to 16th in the points but also a little surprise if he flirts with just being top-20.
Smith: He had a good debut, as he did what he was asked to do: keep it between the lines, and don’t wreck it. He’ll have a good chance to make the playoffs.
Symmes: His Speedweeks ultimately ended in a wreck, but the pole winner impressed by running in the lead pack late in the race. Bowman and the No. 88 team feel they’re ready to take a big step, and I like their chances.
Willis: I’m giving it an A-. He got caught up in a wreck but felt like he belonged at this level and on this team. Playoff chances are a 7 out of 10 because Bowman is in his first run in this car, and Hendrick struggled a bit last year.
Craven: Grade: D. The bumpy ride is often associated with a rookie year, but it’s onward and upward for this young man. He could be a future champ, but there will be no playoffs this year.
McGee: I think we all believed this guy would receive the lion’s share of the Hendrick hype headed into the big race, but that ended up going to his fellow new teammate. Sad to have wrecked? Sure. But maybe it makes him feel better that his elder teammate basically had the same day.
Miller: The talent is there, and there were flashes of it, albeit in small doses at Daytona. I’m not seeing Byron in the playoffs after the opening race, but time and experience could change that.
Page: He wasn’t really a factor at Daytona, but he brought the car home in one piece (albeit with some damage). He has a great team and is a fast learner, but I don’t think a playoff spot is in the cards.
Pockrass: It didn’t appear to be all that fun a week for Byron, but he can look at Jimmie Johnson and know that even veterans can have rough Daytona weeks. This year will be a learning one, and if he makes the playoffs, that should be considered a bonus.
Smith: I spent time with his driving coach, Max Papis, in Daytona, and Papis spoke to Byron’s focus, maturity and keen plan for defining success. The priority scale is spot-on for this group. Byron has a very bright future, and the playoffs are a possibility.
Symmes: Byron battled constant adversity at Daytona, a welcome-to-Cup racing experience for the 20-year-old phenom. It will be a learning season for Byron — a college student, by the way — but that doesn’t mean he can’t contend for a playoff spot.
Willis: It’s a C+ for me, which might be a blow for somebody taking geography exams not long ago, but he got caught up in a wreck and never felt like a factor the way Bowman or Chase Elliott did. Playoff chances are a 7 out of 10.
Craven: Grade: C. I appreciate there being an Earnhardt in the field, but this young man has never been in great equipment, so you can’t help but wonder, “What if?” No playoffs for him.
McGee: He barely got a ride together but managed to keep the family Daytona 500 streak alive. Oh, and that helmet with his grandfather all over it was the coolest lid in the race.
Miller: A 21st-place finish has to be celebrated for this driver-team combo, right? Too bad the celebrations won’t include any end-of-year trophies.
Page: For this team to nearly grab a top-20 has to feel close to a win. They won’t be competitive this season but are trying to lay groundwork for the future.
Pockrass: He was running at the finish of the Daytona 500, so that meant it was a good day. The playoffs are a dream, though, for this new team.
Smith: He won Daytona for his helmet alone. No chance this team makes the playoffs.
Symmes: Give him credit for his stick-to-itiveness, putting a Daytona deal together and keeping his family streak going. However, the team isn’t on solid enough ground to compete for a playoff spot.
Willis: Based on expectations, it’s a B-. It was only the third race for StarCom Racing, and he kept an Earnhardt in the 500 field for a 40th straight year. Playoff chances are a 0, since he might not be in that seat every week, and that’s a must-do to make the playoffs.
Craven: Grade: B. I really appreciate the will of Jones. Having spun in his qualifying race last Thursday, Erik shook it off and charged to a third-place finish. He absolutely makes the playoffs in his second year, and he wins multiple races.
McGee: What I said about Blaney actually might apply more to this guy. People in the garage are anxious to see how this pairing works out.
Miller: The saying “you’re only as good as your last race” likely won’t apply to Jones going forward. He’ll be fine, and he’ll pick up a win or two.
Page: Solid debut not reflected in the race results. I would be surprised if Jones doesn’t pick up a win this season.
Pockrass: It was a decent debut while it lasted for Jones. In his second year in Cup, he will make the playoffs.
Smith: He had a tough debut in the No. 20 car. But he’ll be fine. He’ll win this year and make the playoffs.
Symmes: I came away impressed with Jones, who led 11 laps in the opening stage before being taken out in a wreck. Although he seemed to be off the radar a bit at Daytona, Jones will garner plenty of attention in 2018 as he wins at least one race.
Willis: Let’s go with a C+, thanks to his third-place run in the qualifying race and being brought down by his early 500 wreck. Playoff chances are a 9 because he’s with the premier organization in NASCAR, but he needs to tone down the DNF issues if he has to make it on points.
Kasey Kahne, Leavine Family Racing
Craven: Grade: C. Kasey is in a rebuilding mode, and his first race since departing Hendrick Motorsports reflected that. Loads of talent, but he’ll have to be patient because I don’t see playoffs this year for him.
McGee: It’s great to see Kahne smiling again, admittedly excited to be back in an underdog role like he enjoyed so much in his pre-Hendrick gig, Red Bull Racing. But that’s what his situation is: an underdog role.
Miller: Kahne’s average finish at Daytona is 20.0 through Sunday’s Daytona 500, so you know, his finish wasn’t a total surprise. As he and the team get in a groove, they might contend for a win. Emphasis on might.
Page: Never was a factor at Daytona. This team should improve as the season progresses, but a playoff spot might be tough to grab.
Pockrass: It wasn’t a great Speedweeks for Kahne, but he has never been known for restrictor-plate prowess. The team probably won’t make the playoffs, but the key is to take steps to get closer and create a foundation to make them in 2019.
Smith: He ascended to as high as sixth in the running order before getting caught in the mess. We’ll know more about this group as the intermediate tracks arrive, but I don’t expect this team to make the playoffs.
Symmes: Kahne ran among the leaders early but you never got the feeling he could truly contend for the win. For a team that is still in building mode, he’ll likely need a fuel-mileage gamble or a fortuitous push on a plate track to find Victory Lane in 2018.
Willis: Give it a D. The wreck wasn’t his fault, but Michael McDowell finished 15th in the 500 in that car each of the past two years. Playoff chances are a 3. A fuel-mileage win is a possibility if the No. 95 can stay on the lead lap and hope to get lucky.
(Note: LaJoie isn’t running full-time, so the playoffs are not an option)
Craven: Grade: D-minus. LaJoie has always been one of my prospects to watch. I have very high regard for his ability and potential, but he has to start finishing races.
McGee: I love this guy. He scrambled just to make it to the beach, and he’ll be scrambling to make it to all the races.
Miller: Tough start and rough finish for LaJoie, but he appears to have the chops to stick with it and pick up some more time behind the wheel.
Page: A 40th-place finish with a blown engine is something they would like to forget.
Pockrass: His Daytona 500 didn’t last long, so that was disappointing.
Smith: I love this kid because he’s passionate and determined as hell. Someone with some money should really give him a chance, even at the Xfinity level.
Symmes: He blew an engine early, but at least he didn’t crash while trying to enter pit road like he did in 2017.
Willis: He gets a D- because a blown engine isn’t his fault, but he got eight laps into the race before he had to call it a day.
Craven: Grade: B+. Menard had a quiet day, driving a smart race and capitalizing on his savvy approach. I have him averaging his way close to a playoff spot but barely missing out.
McGee: This is certainly not the buzziest of the new pairings, but a top-six at Daytona shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Neither should a season full of 15th-place finishes.
Miller: Good to see the Wood Brothers up in the top 10, even with the older Ford on the track, but the outlook for Menard’s playoff chances is 50-50.
Page: He ran near the front and stayed out of trouble but led only one lap, never seriously contending for the win. Wood Brothers continues to improve, but the team’s playoff chances are less than 50 percent.
Pockrass: A sixth-place finish showed that Menard still has some racing in him and the team can adapt to a new driver. The struggles of the Fords will be too much to overcome to make the playoffs.
Smith: Menard was fast all day, but in the long term, I feel the field is too strong for Menard and the Wood Brothers to make the playoffs.
Symmes: An unspectacular yet solid performance earned Menard a nice finish (sixth). I picked him to win a race in a previous roundtable, so there’s no wavering now.
Willis: B+ job out of Menard. He kept it clean and never felt like a serious contender for the win, but he got both himself and his family’s company (on Blaney’s car) in the top 10. Playoff chances are a straight 5 — very middle of the road, very moderate, very Menard.
Craven: Grade: A. Nobody does more with less than this guy has in his career. I hope he gets a better opportunity in the future, especially with the playoffs being an unlikely destination this season.
McGee: I chatted with him and teammate David Ragan the Wednesday before the race, and confidence was sky-high about this guy’s restrictor-plate skills paired with a team that has plate cred. That confidence was justified.
Miller: McDowell’s finish gave some credence to his ability and the team’s setup for superspeedways, but with intermediate tracks an issue for Front Row, the road ahead might have some potholes.
Page: A top-10 finish at Daytona shows how strong the Front Row restrictor-plate program still is. However, the team has some catching up to do on the intermediate tracks, so he won’t make the playoffs.
Pockrass: A ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500 is a great start for this team. A playoff berth, though, appears unlikely.
Smith: He had a top-10 run for a bunch without elite resources. The momentum from this effort will carry him and this team for weeks — but not far enough to make the playoffs.
Symmes: Daytona was another commendable effort by McDowell, whom we’ve seen get the most out his equipment in past restrictor-plate races. The No. 34 team could have its moments — likely at plate tracks — but the playoffs are a long shot.
Willis: An A- here. Expectations at Front Row are a little different, and he accomplished two big things: He got his car (and sponsors) on TV, and he put up a top-10 finish. Playoff chances are a 2. Chris Buescher made the playoffs in that car in 2016, but it took a win at a 1,000-1 long shot.
Craven: Wallace was the highlight of the week, not only in the car but also outside of the car. He has an edginess to him that the sport desperately needs, and he’s not happy to “just be here” but instead wants to leave his mark. I am warming to the idea that this No. 43 car could get back to Victory Lane this year. I’m going all-in on Bubba making the playoffs.
McGee: I would like to thank him for reversing the #McGeeCurse. But seriously, he had to deal with a prerace media crush that was very similar to Dale Junior’s and Danica’s Daytona debuts. RPM has a steep uphill climb, but Wallace left as the story of the weekend.
Miller: Count me in as a Bubba believer. He handled the pressure, expectations and Denny Hamlin to sneak in a second-place finish. Now, to temper all of that excitement, it has taken a long time for RPM to produce a consistent winner week in and week out, and this season might be no different.
Page: When Bubba and RPM get as much (if not more) publicity than the winner of the race, they have to be happy. RPM is going to have some struggles this season with all the changes they are undergoing, not to mention the continuing search for sponsorship, so the playoffs are unlikely.
Pockrass: It was an incredible day for Wallace in his first Daytona 500. He’s still a long shot to make the playoffs, as this team is one in transition.
Smith: Bubba is the story of the Daytona 500. I expect the intermediate tracks to be more difficult for this group, and though I hope they make the playoffs, I don’t expect them to.
Symmes: One of the top attention-grabbers of Speedweeks, Wallace backed up the hype with a rousing second-place finish (and endeared himself to fans with the genuine emotion he showed afterward). The playoffs are a lot to ask for a team in transition that is lacking sponsorship.
Willis: It’s an A+ for the finish and the impact he had over the weekend and the way he handled the extra attention. Playoff chances are just a 4. Sorry to play Captain Bringdown, but that car had three top-fives and six top-10s last year — hardly playoff-making numbers.