With the Daytona 500 just less than a week away, it’s the perfect time to look at some of the biggest news heading into the Great American Race.
First, let’s look at some of the roster and team moves made in the offseason. To start off Trackhouse Racing the second year team owned by former driver Justin Marks and world famous musician Pitbull opened up a second team fielding Ross Chastain in the #1 car who will be teammates with Daniel Suarez in the #99. Trackhouse bought out much of long time team Chip Ganassi Racing who after over 20 years in the sport shut down their team. Trackhouse also luckily got many sponsors from Ganassi to follow over to them as well, which is very important for the team financially in this day and age.
Team Penske made one of the bigger offseason moves as they parted ways with longtime veteran and champion Brad Keselowski. They swiftly slated 2020 Xfinity Series champion and now cup series rookie, Austin to take over the #2 car fulltime. Keselowski now moves to the #6 car and is officially a co-owner of the newly named Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing. Keselowksi is no stranger to owning NASCAR teams as he owned a very successful truck team in the mid 2010s. Keselowski will run alongside teammate in the #17 Chris Buescher as well.
A new team to the cup series in Kaulig Racing is also taking their shot full time this year in the cup series with rookie driver Justin Haley, who will pilot the #31 car. Haley, although a rookie has won a cup race, also happened to be at Daytona in 2019 for Spire Motorsports in a rain shortened event. Kaulig has also run Xfinity for many years now winning many races and also won a cup race last year after AJ Allmendinger stole a win at the inaugural Indianapolis Road Course race. Kaulig will also field a #16 car in cup which will run a variety of drivers, but for the Daytona 500 will field 2021 Xfinity Champion Daniel Hemric.
Wood Brothers Racing also made a pretty big move in the offseason letting go of fan favorite Matt Dibenedetto this offseason. However, they made a unexpected decision and signed rookie Harrison Burton to run the full season in the #21. Many have said that Burton may not be ready for the cup series, but Burton has won a few races in the Xfinity series and has a deep family history in the sport along with it.
Another new team Team Hezeberg announced they will be running a part time schedule with two drivers. Those two being Loris Hezemans who is a two time NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champion, and Jacques Villeneuve the 1997 Formula One Champion, who will be their driver for the Daytona 500. This team came pretty much out of left field but their driver lineup is very solid, with veteran expertise in Villeneuve and youth with Hezemans.
Front Row Motorsports also made an unexpected move in the offseason releasing rookie driver Anthony Alfredo, while picking up new rookie Todd Gilliland. Gilliland has ran in the truck series the past few seasons, last year running for Front Row’s truck program. Gilliland is also the third and final rookie who will be running full time and for rookie of the year honors in 2022.
GMS Motorsports and Richard Petty Motorsports have also made an alliance this offseason to form into one team. GMS have been long-time competitors in the Truck and Xfinity series with multiple championships to their name in the truck series and a win in Xfinity. The alliance is a two car effort with Erik Jones returning to the #43 and Ty Dillon making his return to full time cup competition in the #42.
The final major move in the offseason was 23XI Racing adding a second car to run alongside the only African American driver in the cup series Darrell Wallace Jr. in the #23. This driver is veteran and future hall of famer Kurt Busch in the #45 car. Busch was forced out of his seat after Ganassi shut down, but Busch made the move to 23XI where he will have Monster Energy as a primary sponsor. Busch looks to help the progression of the second year team who were able to snag a rain shortened win at Talladega last year with Darrell Wallace Jr. in the fall.
Next, the obvious biggest change heading into the season was NASCAR’s decision to bring in a new car, called the Next Gen. It is meant to make for better racing and give the car more of a stock car feeling. Some of the major changes to it is the change to one lug nut, the addition of over 150 horsepower on most tracks, and a smaller spoiler to change the way the downforce affects the car. The decision was also made to change Number placement on the car, from the middle to the front to allow for sponsors to print their logos bigger on the car. This move was looked at not so fondly by most fans, but now after the Clash at the coliseum (Won by #22 Joey Logano) and two practices for the Daytona 500, most fans aren’t as upset about the change.
Finally, it is time to look at how the cars look heading into the 500 from what has been seen at the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and the first two practices at Daytona. The Clash was a fantastic race, with lots of hard racing, and plenty of festivities for fans to enjoy. It was pretty clear NASCAR had started out on the right foot. Joey Logano as already stated was able to fend off a charging Kyle Busch to win the first race in the Next Gen car’s existence. Although not a points race bragging rights still come out of it and it gives momentum to that team as well. Through the two practices at Daytona both last year’s Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell, and Ryan Blaney topped the charts in each of their sessions respectively. Teams were in a split with some working together in the draft preparing for race conditions and others working to try and perfect their qualifying setup. It was intriguing to see how each team handled the practices and showed who’s confident on what parts of the weekend.
The Daytona 500 this year is the start of a new era for the sport, with a new car, new faces, and new fans. It is imperative that NASCAR takes advantage of the situation and hopefully puts on a good show in the biggest race of all. My pre-race prediction for the winner of the Daytona 500 is the #12 of Ryan Blaney as he has been fast almost every year he has run in the race and already out the gate seems quick this year as well. Tune in to the Daytona 500 on Sunday February 20th, 2:30 PM on FOX, to watch the 64th annual running of the Great American Race!