What We Learned From Daytona
HMS might be better than expected
Coming into the season there wasn’t a lot of attention on Hendrick Motorsports. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson was coming off of a lackluster 2018 season that saw his primary sponsor leave the sport and the only crew chief of his career be moved to a different team. Chase Elliott had a solid season in 2018 (finishing 6th in the final standings) but the same truly couldn’t be said for William Byron and Alex Bowman, despite Bowman making the playoffs. Elliott was viewed as the best bet on the team coming into the season with a bunch of question marks behind him.
Fast forward to the end of the Daytona 500 weekend and things are looking a lot better for HMS. Byron and Bowman sat on the front row for the race, Johnson won his duel race and all four of them showed speed and the ability to run inside of the top-10. Johnson ended up being the only driver of the four to finish inside of the top-10 but this is what happens when wrecks take out more than half of the field. While it was only one race, and it was a superspeedway, there is something to be said for the speed that HMS showed this past weekend. I am not ready to say HMS will be dominant this season but I am ready to say they might not be as bad as some have predicted.
Daytona takes a mental toll
The first 150 laps on Sunday were about as delightful as one could have asked for. Sure, there were a couple of bumps along the way and a few cars were a little beat up. Overall though, the action on the track was terrific and the drivers all seemed to be on point. The last 57 laps in Daytona simply weren’t the same though.
Daytona isn’t a physically demanding track but it is a mentally demanding one and the last 57 laps on Sunday were proof of that. As the laps wound down so did the mental sharpness of some of the drivers as they jockeyed to be in position to challenge for a victory. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. caused a pileup after he tried to shoot a gap between two cars that was never truly a gap worth shooting. Clint Bowyer caused a pileup of his own after putting on a nice move to make a pass and then cutting back in front of a car before he had cleared them. Watching the race you might have seen these as poor choices but the truth is they were simply the result of the mental wear and tear that is Daytona.
Ford isn’t unstoppable
The narrative for the majority of the offseason consisted of talk around who was going to stop the Ford’s in 2019. 2018 ended with Ford taking 6 of 10 spots in the final NASCAR point standings and 7 of the top-12 spots overall. Ford drivers found victory lane 19 times in 2018, anchored by Kevin Harvick’s eight wins. Ford also produced a near perfect superspeedway race towards the end of the 2018 season at Talladega in which they took four of the top-five spots, leading almost every lap. This came on the heels of their April Talladega masterpiece in which Ford took six of the top-seven spots in that race (including the win).
While Daytona isn’t the be-all-end-all, it is a strong showing that Toyota is still right there in the mix for dominant manufacturer. Chevy had a nice run with HMS but after only winning four races in 2018 (as compared to Ford with 19 and Toyota with 13) it’s hard put Chevy up there with the others until the wins begin to pile up. Ford might still be the manufacturer to beat in 2019 but anyone who thinks Toyota isn’t going to be right there with them all season is nothing less than foolish.