The top-four finishers in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash were in Fords: race winner Brad Keselowski, 2015 Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano, defending Daytona 500 champ Kurt Busch and rookie Ryan Blaney. Keselowski, Logano and Blaney all drive for Team Penske.
Ford has been the dominant brand of late at Daytona with Keselowski winning the 2016 July race, Busch’s win last February and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the most recent winner.
Hendrick Motorsports also continues to field fast cars for qualifying, although that hasn’t necessarily translated into great race performances in recent years.
Alex Bowman, who took over for the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the pole Sunday in the No. 88 Chevrolet. But you have to go all the way back to 2000 and Dale Jarrett to find the last driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole.
Still, Hendrick drivers have fared well over the past five years. Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to sweep February and July races in 2013, and Earnhardt won the 2014 Daytona 500 as well as the 2015 summer race.
Toyota’s best bet could be outside polesitter Denny Hamlin. He was the 2016 race winner, holding off Martin Truex Jr. in a photo finish.
Kyle Busch, like Truex looking for his first 500 win, could be another contender in a Toyota.
If you’re inclined to go with a dark horse, then Austin Dillon may be a good pick. The driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet finished fifth at the Clash, best among the Chevy drivers. He has five top-10 finishes in nine Daytona starts, and his car looked solid with a 14th-place qualifying effort.
Looking at the season, the Toyota drivers should again be favored, although a big unknown is how much improvement the Chevrolet camp will show after a change from the SS Model to the Camaro.
Kyle Busch is my preseason pick for the series championship after coming so close in the final race of the season at Homestead.
The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won five races last season and really came on the strongest at the end of the season. The 32-year-old racer from Las Vegas has 43 career wins. When put in perspective, that’s three more than Hall of Famer Mark Martin and one fewer than Bill Elliott.
Another strong contender will be Hamlin, his teammate, who has the mantle of best driver without a championship. Hamlin won two races last season but faded at the end. He has 31 career wins and has finished in the top 10 of the standings every year 10 of 12 seasons.
Defending series champion Truex has driven the dominant car each of the last two seasons, but one has to figure the other teams will catch up to Furniture Row Racing soon. He won eight races in 2017, but it will be interesting to see how he fares this season.
Johnson will again go for history, trying to pass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the sport’s first eight-time champion. His team won three races last season, although the last was at Dover, and he enters the season on a 23-race winless streak. During the NASCAR Media Tour, Johnson talked about bouncing back strong this season.
Two young drivers, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, look to be the other strongest Chevy contenders. Larson won four races last season before fading at the end. Elliott is still looking for a first win but was particularly strong down the stretch.
Among the Ford contingent, look for it to be either Kevin Harvick, Keselowski or Logano.
Harvick, the 2014 series champion, made the championship race a year ago and has been a contender every year at Stewart-Haas Racing. Keselowski was strong all year while Logano faded after his win was ruled encumbered at Richmond, and he later failed to make NASCAR’s playoffs.