Daytona 500 could lift drivers seeking next gear
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s a new year in NASCAR, and hope springs eternal.
The long, silent winter is over. In the infield at Daytona International Speedway, fan RVs have popped up like flowers after a spring rain. Along the beach, you can buy three T-shirts for 10 bucks. Not that you’d necessarily want to do that.
Inside the garage area, where the real work is done, mechanics are under and around brand-new race cars, each team not only gunning for a win in the world’s most important stock car race but also looking for a strong start to the 36-race season, one of sports’ longest.
How teams do here is not indicative of how they will perform throughout the year. Kurt Busch, last year’s Daytona 500 winner, is evidence. He didn’t
win the rest of the season.
But Daytona is big. The biggest. Of the dozens of drivers pointing toward the 500 and beyond, several, perhaps, are a bit needier than most.
Atop that list is Joey Logano, who had a mysterious sort of season last year.
Logano missed the playoffs, and he did so despite winning a race.
A victory lane visit practically guarantees a playoff spot, but Logano’s winning car at Richmond didn’t pass postrace inspection, and his win immediately was labeled “encumbered,” a rather mystical term that has been banished from NASCAR’s vocabulary this year. It will not be missed.
After the Richmond experience, Logano and his team drove into a dark place. In the next five races, he finished
32nd, 37th, 21st, 25th and 23rd. He had eight top-10 finishes in the season’s first nine races but then had only nine
top-10s the rest of the season.
The No. 22 team missing the playoffs was like the Patriots being absent from the Super Bowl. It’s not supposed to happen. It doesn’t fit the plans of the Captain, Roger Penske, who is used to racing the best and often beating them.
Put a check mark by Logano as a driver looking for redemption.
Also on that list is Chase Elliott, who is only 22 but already has people asking, “Dude, when you gonna win?”
Elliott did everything but win last year. He was second five times, third three times, fourth one time and fifth twice. In 2016, his rookie season, he had 10 top-five runs but no wins.
The son of Bill Elliott, one of the most popular drivers in the sport’s history, Chase takes the “losses” hard. Support from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has been there and done that, has been important.
The feeling about Elliott is that when he finally wins the dam will burst and a chain of victories will follow. Sunday will be the first chance this year for the breakthrough moment.
And then there is the case of Denny Hamlin, who as a kid racer met Joe Gibbs and told him he one day would drive for him. Remarkably, that prediction came true.
In Hamlin’s first full season (2006) with Gibbs, he finished third in points, and many assumed the path to a championship had been paved
Despite a noteworthy career (including 31 Cup wins), Hamlin, now 37, hasn’t been able to close the door on the championship. He has been second, third (twice), fifth, sixth (three times) and ninth (twice).
Hamlin remains confident he’ll reach the gold ring. He compares his situation to Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s long drought in the Daytona 500, one that ended in victory (in 1998) after two decades.
“Dale Earnhardt was the greatest Daytona driver for how many years before he won it? 20 years, right?” Hamlin said. “He dominated every time. Every year he was in contention. He just never won. He kept putting himself up front and in contention, and he won.
“That’s the way I’m going to keep approaching my career and keep grinding on the door.”
The grind continues Sunday.
NASCAR Cup Series driver Joey Logano needs a good run at Daytona to put his mysterious 2017 behind him.