Day­tona 500 could lift driv­ers seek­ing next gear

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mike Hem­bree

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.

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