Who Wins Daytona? Will New Camaro Be a Hit?

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Published on February 13 2018 6:10 am
Last Updated on February 13 2018 6:11 am

By ESPN

Our experts weigh in on some of the biggest questions in the sport heading into the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season:
The 60th Daytona 500 is Sunday. Who's your pick to win?

Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: With the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the best current restrictor-plate driver becomes Brad Keselowski. He has five wins at Talladega and a July win at Daytona, but the 500 has eluded him. That changes this year.

Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: This is really the only jewel missing from Kyle Busch's crown. His luck in the 500 has always been pretty awful, so it would be fitting if he finally won it on his 13th try.

Alisha Miller, ESPN.com: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two Cup races in 2017, and those wins just happened to be at Talladega and -- surprise -- Daytona. Familiarity along with prior success goes a long way for the driver of the No. 17 Ford.

Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: Chase Elliott. The lovable loser of 2017 -- he would have won the Daytona 500 if he didn't run out of gas -- earns his first-career Cup win on the biggest stage.

Marty Smith, ESPN: Denny Hamlin. Earnhardt Jr.'s retirement opens a spot at the restrictor-plate head table. It means an annual challenger for the sport's most coveted individual event trophy is gone, as Earnhardt, a standard-bearer for the past 15 years at restrictor-plate events, trades Nomex for neckties, the steering wheel for the microphone. Eight or 10 drivers are better than the rest at these tracks. But truly, anyone can win. Hamlin, Brad, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Elliott and Jamie McMurray are all favorites, always in contention late at Daytona and Talladega. But in 2018, Hamlin is the man. He's a unique study. He's talented, vocal and thoughtful, a leader in the garage. His team is the best-funded in the sport. It's his time.

Scott Symmes, ESPN.com: I'll take Elliott. He has grown comfortable running up front at Daytona, and as Bob pointed out, he flirted with victory until the very end a year ago. After so many close calls (seven runner-up finishes in two years), there's no question he's due to break through. We've seen others get their first Cup win in the 500; my gut says Elliott is next.

Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: Keselowski has won three of the past four restrictor-plate races he has finished (he has three DNFs and a seventh-place finish in there, too). Among drivers with at least five starts in plate races, only Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison have a better win percentage than Keselowski, who has six plate wins in 35 races. That's select company.
Who or what will be the season's biggest surprise?

Craven: Erik Jones has the credentials to be a superstar in Cup. Few would be surprised to see the sophomore driver roll into Victory Lane in 2018. I believe it happens repeatedly. I see as many as four wins and strongly believe he could sweep Bristol this year.

McGee: Pit stops will be a bit of a goat roping at season's start, but by year's end I think we'll all be surprised at how quickly the short-handed crews get times back down out of the 13-second range and already scaring 11 seconds again.

Miller: He's not quite a surprise given he earned rookie of the year honors last season, however, watch out for Jones to get to Victory Lane a time or three. Craven, who knows a thing or two about racing, says Jones is the man to watch in 2018. I can't go against Ricky now, can I?

Pockrass: Ty Dillon will make the playoffs.

Smith: It's NASCAR. Whatever this answer is, we don't see it coming yet.

Symmes: Paul Menard wins a race for the Wood Brothers, giving the legendary organization its 100th victory and the Wisconsin driver his first-career playoff berth.

Willis: I could say Clint Bowyer will snap his near 200-race winless streak, but in a Stewart-Haas car, that wouldn't be a huge surprise. So I'll say we tie the modern era (since 1972) record with five first-time winners, as Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez all notch their first career wins.

Which drivers will make up the Cup championship four in Homestead?

Craven: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Elliott.

McGee: Kyle Busch, Truex Jr., Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson. The youth movement is knocking at the door, but the old guard still rules. For now.

Miller: Truex Jr., Larson, Harvick and Elliott.

Pockrass: Kyle Busch, Truex Jr., Harvick and Larson.

Smith: Hamlin. Truex Jr. Larson. Johnson.

Symmes: Truex Jr., Larson, Hamlin and Elliott. What about Kyle Busch, you say? He'll be the same formidable Kyle, but he can't make it EVERY year, right? He's been in the final four three straight seasons, so I'll play the law of averages and say something trips him up this fall. The format is just too tricky (even with carryover bonus points).

Willis: This format is great for Kyle Busch, so I expect to list his name for this question for the next decade or so. Keselowski and Truex Jr. will use their prowess of accumulating bonus points to get in. For the fourth spot, I like a young gun, Jones, to clean up some of the DNF problems he had in 2017 and perform more like he did in the hot run he had over the summer.
Will Chevrolet's new Camaro be a force from the start?

Craven: I believe the Camaro will have an impact immediately. If it doesn't, then Chevrolet didn't do its homework. Yes, there will be evolution of the new body style, but you present a change only if it's better, and a change of this magnitude has a tremendous amount of energy behind it. The Camaro is an iconic brand, and it has never, ever competed at NASCAR's highest level. I believe it will be an authority out of the gate.

McGee: Force? I dunno. But it'll definitely be a jump forward. The question is will that jump get the bowties back into the same area code as Toyota? Probably not, but they'll be in the next area code over, and that's way better than 2017.

Miller: Not from the start, as the Toyotas will continue to dominate. Even Elliott said in early January after test-driving laps in the Camaro that it'll take actual race conditions to determine how the new Chevrolet model stacks up. It'll just take time to break it in.

Pockrass: No. The Camry wasn't, so don't expect the Camaro to be a force until April or May.

Smith: I asked some Chevy drivers their thoughts. They all said the exact same thing: It's impossible to even guess its potential until Week 2 in Atlanta.

Symmes: Larson's enthusiasm after the recent Las Vegas test suggests the Chevy teams already have figured some things out. That doesn't mean they'll dominate from day one. The JGR teams had a noticeable learning curve last season with the new Camry, and a similar process is likely with the Camaro. We'll know a lot more after the Atlanta race, the car's first true test.

Willis: With teams such as Hendrick and Ganassi running the Camaro, I fully expect to see it winning races early in the season. But will it be a force? Not as much so as Toyota, which was so far ahead of Chevrolet last year that Chevy will just hope to close the gap. Chevrolet won 10 races last season, its fewest in a season since 2000.

What are realistic expectations for the young core of talent at Hendrick Motorsports?

Craven: Hendrick Motorsports looks more like the Florida Marlins than the New York Yankees, and that's not a knock, because I remember Josh Beckett helping lead the Marlins to a World Series when nobody saw that coming. This organization is set up well for the next decade. Elliott is ready to contend for this year's title -- anything short of a final four appearance would be a disappointment. Byron will pay dividends down the road, but not today. Bowman is underrated and has the potential to put the No. 88 Car in Victory Lane.

McGee: They should all win at least once, with Elliott winning multiple times. Heads up, Kyle Busch, that'll probably show up in some NASCAR marketing materials.

Miller: Realistic is that Elliott takes home some checkered flags, and the law offices of Byron & Bowman pick up valuable billable hours leading laps and notching top-10s.

Pockrass: Elliott finished fifth in the points last year. Byron gets in a car that finished 15th in the standings last year. Bowman gets in a car that finished 21st. Expect Elliott to again challenge to make the final four, but also for him to win two or three races. For Byron and Bowman, they replace quality drivers, so they should expect similar finishes to what those cars did a year ago, maybe a few spots better with the new Camaro.

Smith: Byron and Bowman: Race it don't wreck it. Pack a notebook. Use it. Anything more is extra credit. Floss daily. Elliott: 2018 champion contender.

Symmes: Well, I'm obviously on Elliott's bandwagon. I'm excited about Byron, too, but I'm not sold he can win right away. Elliott, Jones and Larson are all huge talents. None found Victory Lane as a rookie. Bowman will make the No. 88 car a factor again. Does that mean he wins a race? Makes a title run? Not necessarily. But he'll be a credible performer, which is exactly what he was during his relief stint in 2016.

Willis: I have high hopes, as evidenced earlier when I expected all three to win races this year. But with Hendrick coming off one of its weakest seasons in recent memory (four wins matched its fewest in a season since 2000), I think realistic expectations are for the three drivers to either win a race or make the playoffs this year. Except for Elliott; I think this is the year he turns those second-place finishes into wins and is the top title contender on the team, even ahead of some guy named Johnson.