New faces pro­vide a throw­back feel

Stars fa­vored, but scrappy kids take race back to roots

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - AUTO RACING - By Jenna Fryer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Among those try­ing to win the Daytona 500 this year are a Florida wa­ter­melon farmer, a short-track cham­pion from New Eng­land, a tele­vi­sion an­a­lyst and a 22-year-old whose ca­reer nearly was de­railed by a brain tu­mor.

The front row is the youngest in Daytona 500 his­tory.

It will be Wil­liam By­ron, a Lib­erty Univer­sity stu­dent who had his wis­dom teeth re­moved in the off­sea­son, lead­ing the field to green in Sun­day’s show­case race to kick off the NASCAR sea­son.

The over­all look of the na­tion’s top rac­ing se­ries has un­der­gone a trans­for­ma­tion the last few sea­sons, and proof is plas­tered on the hood of Corey LaJoie’s car. His fully bearded face adorns his Ford Mus­tang, which eas­ily makes him the most rec­og­niz­able driver among the eight Daytona 500 rook­ies in the field.

“He looks like he’s go­ing to eat you ev­ery lap,” quipped Clint Bowyer.

LaJoie’s paint scheme for his low-budget team is cour­tesy of spon­sor Old Spice, which chose “The Great Amer­i­can Race” to pro­mote its dry sham­poo.

Man­scaped.com bought the space on the back of Lan­don Cas­sill’s car. Bubba Wal­lace signed After­shokz head­phones for the race. Af­ter Casey Mears made the field — his first race in two years — skate­board rim maker Rim Ry­derz joined his pro­gram.

This Daytona 500 is un­like any in re­cent mem­ory and truly high­lights the dra­matic loss of star power from just four years ago. The 2015 race fea­tured Jeff Gor­don, Dale Earn­hardt Jr., Tony Ste­wart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Ed­wards, Bobby Labonte, Michael Wal­trip and Dan­ica Pa­trick. All have re­tired.

Some of the big-money spon­sors in that race included Lowe’s, Tar­get, Dol­lar Gen­eral, GoDaddy and 5-Hour En­ergy. All have since pulled out of NASCAR.

What re­mains is a newlook NASCAR that nonethe­less has a throw­back feel.

NASCAR was built on the premise that if a bud­ding driver or team owner could scrape to­gether the funds to field a car, they could bring it down to the beach and try to make the big show. As the sport ex­ploded past its South­ern ori­gins, it be­came nearly im­pos­si­ble for a new driver to claw his way into a ride.

But change has cre­ated op­por­tu­nity — even sec­ond and third chances for a guy like Ross Chas­tain. The eighth-gen­er­a­tion wa­ter­melon farmer im­pressed a spon­sor with his work ethic and landed a ca­reer-chang­ing ride with un­ex­pected fund­ing. Fed­eral agents raided the spon­sor right be­fore Christ­mas, but Chas­tain still man­aged to land a seat for his first Daytona 500.

Ryan Preece bounced back and forth between NASCAR and New Eng­land short tracks be­fore fi­nally gam­bling on his future. He set­tled for a part-time job with a com­pet­i­tive team be­cause he be­lieved he could show his true ta­lent if given the right equip­ment. Now he’s also a Daytona 500 rookie.

Same with Matt Tifft, who learned he had a brain tu­mor four races into his 2016 sea­son.

Or Daniel Hem­ric of Kan­napo­lis, N.C., who fol­lowed hero Dale Earn­hardt Sr. from the old mill town into a ride with Richard Chil­dress Rac­ing.

Parker Kliger­man, a part­time racer and full-time tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, raced his way into his sec­ond Daytona 500.

“Watch­ing this race last year, I lit­er­ally thought I’d never drive a Cup car again, never have an­other chance in the Daytona 500,” Kliger­man said. “I’m do­ing TV full time. It just didn’t seem like I was re­ally get­ting any­one’s at­ten­tion. For what­ever rea­son, I just couldn’t find the right op­por­tu­nity, couldn’t find a spon­sor.

“I went off and did the TV thing. You’ve seen driv­ers do that be­fore, where they do some­thing to up their pro­file, and then they get back in a ride. It kind of feels like it’s fi­nally all start­ing to work.”

Kliger­man works for NBC Sports. So does Earn­hardt Jr., his broad­cast part­ner, who will drive the first pickup truck to pace the race. It is an un­ex­pect­edly heavy NBC Sports pro­mo­tion in a race broad­cast by ri­val Fox.

De­spite all the hard­scrab­ble hope­fuls who at var­i­ous times fig­ured they’d never make it to NASCAR’s big­gest stage, the su­per teams still ex­ist, and the stars are the fa­vorites.

Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports 2019 OPENER and its four fast Chevro­lets at the start of Speed­weeks went 1-2-3-4 in time tri­als. By­ron, 21, and team­mate Alex Bow­man, 25, swept the front row for qual­i­fy­ing and gave Chevro­let an early boost in its ef­fort to de­fend last year’s Daytona 500 vic­tory by Austin Dil­lon.

Still, Ford driv­ers swept both podi­ums in the pair of 150-mile qual­i­fy­ing races to load the sec­ond, third and fourth rows with the brand new Mus­tang. Ford com­peted last year with the Fu­sion, winning 19 of 36 races and its first Cup ti­tle in 14 sea­sons, and is ea­ger to make an im­me­di­ate state­ment with its sportier new race­car.

Kevin Har­vick and Joey Logano, pre­vi­ous Daytona 500 win­ners, led the Ford charge. Logano and Team Penske team­mate Brad Ke­selowski are listed as 8-1 fa­vorites in bet­ting lines.

Jim­mie John­son ended a 19-month los­ing streak with a vic­tory in a Speed­weeks ex­hi­bi­tion race, but he trig­gered a 16-car ac­ci­dent while mak­ing his race-winning pass.

Then con­tact with Kyle Busch in a qual­i­fy­ing race in­creased the scru­tiny around John­son, who has a new spon­sor in Ally Fi­nan­cial and a new crew chief for the first time since his 2001 de­but.

The Toy­ota bunch has yet to stand out from the crowd, which doesn’t bother Martin Truex Jr. His 0-for-14 skid in the Daytona 500 is the long­est among ac­tive driv­ers, but he knows he has a chance Sun­day.

“Out of the 40 cars, how many have a le­git shot at winning? Prob­a­bly 25,” he said.

JARED C. TILTON/GETTY

Wil­liam By­ron (24) will be on the pole for Sun­day’s Daytona 500, shar­ing the front row with team­mate Alex Bow­man. Daytona 5002:30 p.m. Sun­day, FOX

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