2017 NASCAR Season Kicks off at Daytona with “The Clash”

Ahhhh, do you smell that? IT’S SPEEDWEEKS! The freshly cut grass, the engines firing up for the first time since late-November and NASCAR fans rejoicing worldwide. Nothing better.

Who cares if it’s a non-point paying event, the NASCAR offseason has finally come to an end. The Advance Auto Parts Clash kicks off the 2017 NASCAR season. Previous names of the race have been the Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Shootout, Busch Clash, etc. But regardless of whatever you want to call it, RACING IS BACK! And that’s all that matters.

WHAT: Advance Auto Parts Clash (75 laps (two segments, 25 and 50 respectively)

WHEN: Saturday Feb. 18. 8 p.m. ET

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway. TV coverage on Fox Sports 1, radio on MRN

FAVORITES: Brad Keselowski (9-2) and Logano (13-2)

LAST YEAR’S WINNER: Denny Hamlin was victorious, with Joey Logano finishing second. Hamlin went on to win the Daytona 500, becoming the sixth driver ever to win both races during Speedweeks. Hamlin has also won this race three times, tied with Kevin Harvick for the most wins out of the active crop of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers.

THE LINEUP: Qualifying for this race, well, isn’t a thing. A random draw determines the starting grid for this race. It just so happens that Keselowski, who won two of four restrictor plate races in 2016, and last year’s winner of this race, Hamlin, will make up the front row.

The full lineup will consist of 17 drivers, filled with pole sitters from 2016, former winners of “The Clash”, former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2016 and drivers who qualified for the playoffs, then known as “The Chase” in 2016. The field had as many drivers as 28 in 2009, but it has been narrowed down for the better and the racing should reflect that too.

NO DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Despite being cleared to race months ago, Dale Jr. will not be competing in this race. He is eligible by winning this race in 2003 and 2008, but opted to hand the figurative keys over to Alex Bowman, who won the pole at Phoenix late last season while subbing for Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car.

He deserves it,” Jr. said of Bowman. “It is a bit of a tip of the cap to not only his pole win and how well he did at Phoenix, but how he stepped in and did a great job every week for our guys. That is not an easy job to do.

Have no fear, though, Jr. Nation: Dale will be back in the car for the Can-Am Duels as well as the Great American Race, the Daytona 500, later next week.

NEW FACES, SOME OF WHICH IN NEW PLACES: Reigning Sunoco Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott (won Daytona 500 pole last season), Chris Buescher (won Pocono last season) and Daniel Suarez (taking over for Carl Edwards) will be making their first starts in this exhibition race, with Suarez making his first ever start in the Monster Energy Cup Series.

Elliott’s second season in the No. 24 car is being met with enthusiasm from everybody in the garage. Buescher, who is on loan from Roush Fenway Racing for 2017, will be running for JTG Daugherty Racing in the No. 37 Chevrolet, a new entry as that team is expanding to two cars for 2017. Suarez has zero experience in Cup, but a 2016 XFINITY championship under his belt.

MISSING MAINSTAYS: With the departure of Tony Stewart due to retirement and the surprise announcement from Edwards to step away after being 10 laps from a championship, NASCAR fans are looking for a void to fill, and will have to deal with the changing aspects of the sport all year. The No. 14 won’t be in “The Clash”, but Suarez will pilot the No. 19 for Joe Gibbs Racing.

A NEW ERA FOR STEWART-HAAS RACING: This will mark the first race of the Ford era at SHR. After being with Chevrolet for the entirety of their existence, dating back to the mid 2000s, the Blue Oval will replace the Bowtie on the No.’s 4, 10, 14 and 41 for 2017. All indications from the team have shown a smooth transition. But until results are seen on the race track, I doubt anybody, including the team itself, will truly believe it.

IT’S STILL ANYBODY’S RACE: When the haulers arrive at Daytona or Talladega, all drivers, teams and fans alike know that the trophy is for the taking by anybody. Restrictor plate racing levels the playing field, allowing for shocking wins recently like Trevor Bayne in 2011, David Ragan in 2013 or Aric Almirola in 2015.

But on the flip side, the Big Five (JGR, SHR, Penske, Hendrick and Furniture Row) have been rather dominant at all tracks, including the plate tracks, in the past few seasons. It’ll be intriguing to see which underdog can make some noise on Saturday.

WIN OR GO HOME: In seven of the last eight running’s of this race, there have been at least nine DNF’s. That means there will be crashes, and a lot of them. There are no point implications, only cash and a trophy on the line. Couple that with the close quarters of restrictor plate racing, and you have a recipe for accidents and lots of torn up race cars.

PREDICTION: As stated on Victory Lane this week, I’m not betting against the new restrictor plate ace in Keselowski. He’s the betting favorite for a reason, and I’m sticking with Las Vegas on this one. Plus, he was at the top of the speed charts in practice session No. 1 in his No. 2 Ford with a speed of 191.601 mph (46.972 seconds).

Hamlin was also fastest in the second practice, eclipsing 196 mph as he drafted in a small pack with his teammates. But as a dark horse, I’ll take Jamie McMurray at 18-1. He’s a great plate racer and is starting third.