As the season-opening Daytona 500 draws ever closer, on-track action for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series starts this week. Practice sessions on Friday and Saturday prior to the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona will be the first chance to see cars on track.
The Clash, a non-points race that kicks off the 2017 NASCAR season, will be run Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. Previously known as the Busch Clash, Budweiser Shootout and the Sprint Unlimited, the race is open to last season's pole winners, past Clash event winners, past Daytona 500 pole winners and last season's Chase drivers.
That adds up to 17 drivers who are eligible for the 75-lap race that will be run in two segments, with a competition caution at lap 25 separating the segments. The starting order will be determined by a draw at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
Past winners of the event include Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt will not compete, instead Alex Bowman will run in Earnhardt's place.
Bowman won a pole last season subbing for Earnhardt, who missed the second half of the season due to a concussion. Tony Stewart is also a former Clash winner, but retired from Cup competition following last season.
Earnhardt may not be in the driver's seat Saturday, but he will join Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon in the booth as a guest driver analyst during the telecast.
Other pole winners from last season include Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski while former Daytona 500 pole winners include Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick. Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have also won Daytona 500 poles, but with Edwards sitting out this season, Daniel Suarez will take that spot. Biffle will not compete, as he does not have a ride for the upcoming season.
Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher round out the field, all being Chase drivers from last season.
While it's difficult to pick a winner for any NASCAR race, much less a restrictor-plate race where the running order can change in the last couple hundred yards, you'd have to figure Joe Gibbs Racing has the best chance for victory. While the rookie Suarez is a long shot for the win, Hamlin has won this race three times while Kenseth and Kyle Busch each have one win and four of the last five Clash races have been won by a Gibbs driver.
What I'd like to see is for Kenseth to get his season off to a roaring start by taking the win. As I mentioned in my driver preview last week, the Cambridge native is in the final year of his contract, so if he happens to hang it up at the end of this season, I'd like to see him go out on top. A second win in the Clash would be a great way to get some momentum for the Daytona 500.
Live coverage of the race starts at 7 p.m. Saturday on FOX Sports 1. Qualifying for the Daytona 500 begins at 1 p.m. Sunday on FOX and The Can-Am Duel at Daytona races take place at 6 p.m. Thursday with coverage on FOX Sports 1.
INDYCAR TESTS AT PHOENIX
The Verizon IndyCar Series had its first on-track action of the year with afternoon and evening practice sessions Friday and Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway. The open test on the 1.022-mile oval resulted in more than 5,000 laps run between 21 drivers.
The Chevrolet-powered cars were fastest in the afternoon sessions while the Honda-powered machines took the top times in the night sessions. JR Hildebrand, returning to full-time action this season for Ed Carpenter Racing, had the fastest lap of the weekend at 193.234 mph in his No. 21 Chevy while Mikhail Aleshin took the fastest Honda time at 191.079 mph in the No. 7 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Both had their fastest times in the Saturday afternoon session.
Hildebrand also found the wall, crashing in turn four near the end of the Saturday night session. Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden and Sebastian Bourdais also had incidents Saturday, but none were injured. For Rossi, it was his first crash on an oval in his IndyCar career. Last year's Indianapolis 500 winner is going into his second season with Andretti Herta Autosport.
To get an idea of how fast an IndyCar goes at Phoenix, check out the bottom video of Rahal's visor cam. It's pretty amazing.
In preparation for the test, IndyCar posted the 1994 Slick 50 200 race at Phoenix in its entirety on YouTube. I watched it last week and it brought back so many memories of the “glory days” of IndyCar racing. Drivers Jacques Villeneuve, Mario & Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. pedaling 800+ horsepower turbo-charged rocketships around the track is just amazing to watch.
The 2017 Verizon IndyCar season gets underway Sunday, March 12 with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.