NASCAR’s Super Bowl always comes at the beginning of the season, not the end. Drivers spend all year chasing the points title, but racers can’t successfully complete their career until they win the big one. Who’s in the running to end up in victory lane this year? We ask our Roundtable team to cast predictions on one of sports’ most unpredictable events.
Kyle Busch is due
Matt Baker, State colleges reporter @MBakerTBTimes: With big races like this, I think the race picks the winner. And Kyle Busch is due. He’s too good and too talented to finish his career without winning NASCAR’s biggest race, so this might as well be the year. Don’t rule out Tampa’s Aric Almirola, either; he runs well at superspeedways and came within half a lap of winning it last year.
What will Danica think?
Martin Fennelly, columnist @mjfennelly: I like Chase Elliott. He will win a 500 one day. I like Tampa’s Aric Almirola, who won the last Talladega race and loves restrictor-plate racing. He might break through here eventually. I like pole sitter William Byron. What a future. But I have to go with a throwdown between defending series champion Joe Logano, Brad Keselowski.and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.. They all drive Fords, like Almirola, and Fords just tore it up last fall at Talladega. Logano has won a Daytona 500. Keselowski has won the summer race here, as has Stenhouse. But Keselowski will start in the rear Sunday after a bad dual Thursday night. Stenhouse edges Logano.
Consider the old guy for a change
John Romano, columnist @romano_tbtimes: The season hasn’t even started and Hendrick Motorsports is hogging all the best headlines. After a weak 2018, Jimmie Johnson wiped out half the field while pushing his way to victory in the Daytona Clash. And Hendrick teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman will make up the youngest front row ever at the 500. And then there was Chase Elliott’s crew chief being suspended after repeated inspection failures. Recent history says the 500 winner will be someone new, and usually, unexpected. Not this time. Johnson starts the best comeback story of the year and joins a handful of NASCAR legends as a three-time winner of the Daytona 500.
Rick Stroud, Bucs beat writer @NFLStroud: I’m a sucker for local boy makes good stories. Almirola knows the Daytona International Speedway well. He crashed with about a mile to go in the 500 last year. He learned something that day and applied the rest of the year. In restrictor plate racing, take the best driver. I think be brings that trophy from the Great American Race back to Tampa. Who agrees with me?
Bet on bacon
Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor, @hoop4you: I’m going with Aric Almirola, and not just because he’s from Tampa. Almirola came oh-so close to winning Daytona last year. Almirola came to town last month with a seemingly deeper maturity. He spoke thoughtfully about his hometown and about making the big breakthrough. He won the fall race in Talladega, signaling his growing mastery of restrictor plate racing, and he just seems ready. Plus, how can you bet against a guy whose sponsor makes bacon? I think Almirola sizzles in Victory Lane.