Johnson City Press: Defending series champ Logano pick for Daytona 500

Defending series champ Logano pick for Daytona 500

Jeff Birchfield • Feb 12, 2019 at 4:40 PM

Although Hendrick Motorsports flexed its muscle earlier this week, look for Team Penske to show plenty of horsepower at the Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski was installed as the early race favorite, although I'm inclined to go with his teammate, Joey Logano, the defending NASCAR Monster Cup Energy Series champion.

Logano will be going for his second Daytona 500 victory after winning the race in 2015, while Keselowski won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in 2016. Logano won at Talladega, the other restrictor-plate track in the Cup Series, last spring.

Fords have dominated on the restrictor-plate tracks in recent years, including Aric Almirola winning the most recent plate race at Talladega in October. Still, the Blue Oval brand was shut out at Daytona in 2018. Austin Dillon's Chevrolet bumped Almirola's Ford out of the way to win last year's Daytona 500 and Erik Jones won the July race in a Toyota.

We've already seen one finish to resemble last year's 500, with Jimmie Johnson getting into Paul Menard to win the Advance Auto Parts Clash. Despite the controversy, it was a good sign for Johnson, who will be going for a third Daytona 500 victory.

Pole sitter William Byron will also be a favorite, working with crew chief Chad Knaus, who split with Johnson after 17 years.

The rest of the Hendrick Motorsports contingent — Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott — have to be amongst the favorites. Bowman is in the No. 88 car that Dale Earnhardt Jr. frequently contended for the win at Daytona while Elliott is looking to make up for the 2018 race when he had perhaps the fastest car, but crashed out.

Another of the young drivers, Ryan Blaney, is in the Team Penske equipment, but looking to break through with his first win on the plate tracks.

From the Toyota camp, all four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have plenty of extra motivation.

Denny Hamlin, like Jimmie Johnson, had the first winless season of his career last year. He has a good track record at Daytona, including winning the race in 2016. His teammate, Martin Truex Jr., finished second by a mere inches that day and is still looking for his first Daytona win.

Kyle Busch posted a victory in July, but is still looking for his first 500 win. Erik Jones is the most recent Daytona winner, but would love to follow up at the 500, with Jimmie Johnson the last to have back-to-back wins at Daytona.

Kevin Harvick leads a strong contingent of Stewart-Haas Racing drivers. The driver of the No. 4 Ford won the "Great American Race" in 2007, beating veteran Mark Martin to the line in a classic finish. Almirola is another strong contender based on his restrictor-plate history, while Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez would be darkhorse picks.

Dillon was my darkhorse pick last year and he came through with the win, but it's hard to see any of the Richard Childress Racing teams winning this year's race. Ryan Newman, who is now in the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Ford, has something to prove and he's someone I could see winning his second Daytona 500. His Roush teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is another contender with his recent history on the plate tracks.

Menard showed the way most of the Clash, and the Wood Brothers team always brings a strong car to Daytona.

As great of a racer as Kyle Larson is, he typically struggles on the plate tracks. However, his new teammate, Kurt Busch, is my darkhorse pick. The former Cup Series champion won the 500 two years ago and was strong again last year before getting caught up in a wreck. Now in the Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet, which always runs well at Daytona, Busch should be a major factor in the race.

Action gets back underway Thursday with the Gander RV Duel at Daytona, a pair of 150-mile qualifying races that set most of the field for the 500.

The qualifying races were the favorites of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who holds the record with 12 wins. Among current drivers, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch lead the way with three wins in the former Gatorade Duels, while Chase Elliott has won his qualifying race the last two seasons.

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