Welcome to the new era in NASCAR competition. When the calendar year turned to 2017, it sparked the beginning of a new year of competition. It marked a new way races were run, with three different stages each week. It marked an updated points system, giving points for position after the first two stages.
The term “Chase” is no longer in the sport, it’s simply the “NASCAR Playoffs.” Drivers earn playoff points for stage wins and race wins, and now those points are kept through three rounds of the Playoffs.
But most importantly, NASCAR has a new title to its premier series.
Sprint has said its farewell to the sport, and ushering in this new era, hoping to attract the younger fan base, is Monster Energy. Already sponsoring the car of Kurt Busch, plus having vast sponsorship experience as the title sponsor to Supercross, plus sponsoring not one, but two, Monster Jam machines, this is now a major opportunity to see how they will change the sport.
One thing Monster Energy couldn’t change…weather. NASCAR’s usual start to the season, The Clash at Daytona, was to run Saturday night. But, shortly after driver introductions, the Florida skies decided to open up, and the persistent rain moved the race to a Sunday afternoon show, which in turn pushed back qualifying for the Daytona 500.
For many, moving the race to the daylight presented a challenge, but at the same time benefited everyone due to the fact conditions would likely be similar in one week’s time for the big race itself. So, track time for the 17 eligible drivers, in race conditions, proved vital.
After 75 laps, the battle out front became a block, a slide, and a pass, as it was Joey Logano taking advantage of when his teammate, Brad Keselowski, tried to pass last year’s Clash winner, Denny Hamlin, and the two got together. He slid to the high side, and with no yellow flag to speak of, he pushed forward and cruised to the first victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season.
It may not have been for points, but it still was a victory, and that always gets a team fired up for the new year.
Three hours later, it was all about who was sitting on the front row for the biggest race of the year. Two rounds of single-car qualifying, with only the front two positions being decided. The driver who ended up second, he wasn’t in competition with much of the field for seven months. The reason being, doctor’s orders.
It was clear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted back in his car, the car which Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon drove for much of the second half of 2016, after Junior was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms. He returned to a track he’s seen much success, just like his father. He found enough speed to make it to the pole position, but only held it for a matter of seconds.
The final car out, the fastest car in the first round, ended up being the fastest on the day. It was a driver that removed the rookie stripe two days earlier, and put the car he took over a year ago back out front.
Chase Elliott, the 2016 Rookie of the Year, who earned the pole in last year’s Daytona 500, was quickest yet again. Although this time, celebrating the pole had a little different feeling. Last year, when he took the top spot, victory lane had to be changed around.
Coors Light sponsors the pole award, given to each driver who earns the top qualifying spot each week. But, a year ago, Elliott couldn’t accept that award. The simple reason…he wasn’t of age. So, his time was termed the “21 Means 21” Pole Award.
Having turned 21 later in the season, Elliott can now say he is a Coors Light pole winner, and has become one of very few drivers to say they earned the top spot for the biggest race of the season two years in a row. It is also the third year in a row the No. 24 earned the pole for this race, as Gordon took the top honor in 2015, his final full-time season at the wheel.
Only the front row has been set for next Sunday’s race. The remainder of the field will be set Thursday night with the Can-Am Duels. Drivers that qualified in odd-numbered positions will be in the first duel, which will set the inside row. The second duel will consist of drivers in even-numbered qualifying positions, and will set the outside row. Elliott and Earnhardt Jr. are locked into the front row, and would only sacrifice their starting spot if they are forced to go to a backup car or change engines after the deadline to do so.
The first duel is set to go green at 7 p.m. on Thursday night, with coverage on FS1. The second duel will run approximately 20 minutes after the first duel concludes.
RESULTS: 1-Logano 2-Kyle Busch 3-Bowman 4-Patrick 5-Harvick 6-Keselowski 7-Elliott 8-Suarez 9-Buescher 10-McMurray
NOTABLE FINISHES: 13-Hamlin 16-Johnson
CAUTIONS: 4 for 16 laps. Lap 18-22 (#41, 48 Accident-T4); 27-29 (Segment End); 50-54 (#48 Accident-T4); 62-64 (#78, 42, 37 Accident-T3).
LEAD CHANGES: 6 among 4 drivers. B. Keselowski 1-8; D. Hamlin 9; B. Keselowski 10-19; Kyle Busch 20-24; J. Logano 25-27; D. Hamlin 28-74; J. Logano 75
TIME OF RACE: 1 Hr, 18 Mins, 13 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 143.831 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 1.12 Seconds