NASCAR Roundtable - Daytona

NASCAR writers Lee Spencer, Jim Utter, News Manager Nick DeGroot along with NASCAR PR Manager Tim Southers will tackle questions each week. This week we're getting ready for the season opener Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR Roundtable - Daytona
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Polesitter Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, second place Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Polesitter Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, second place Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Greg Ives
Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Austin Dillon
Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers Racing Ford
Michael Waltrip, Premium Motorsports Toyota
Michael Waltrip, Premium Motorsports Toyota
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Race winner Grant Enfinger, GMS Racing Chevrolet
Race winner Grant Enfinger, GMS Racing Chevrolet
Noah Gragson
Austin Cindric, Brad Keselowski Racing
Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Ford
Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Timothy Peters, Red Horse Racing
Matt Crafton, ThorSport Racing
Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch Motorsports
William Byron, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Polesitter William Byron, Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota
Elliott Sadler, JR Motorsports
Joey Logano, Team Penske Ford

1. How do you think Dale Earnhardt Jr. will perform in Daytona for the Daytona 500 on Sunday?

Lee: With the time he’s had to recover from his concussion, I believe we’ll see the old Dale Jr. reappear at Daytona International Speedway. While qualifying doesn’t mean a whole lot in the Great American Race, posting the second-fastest lap during time trials showed the speed of the No. 88 Chevy. Earnhardt, 42, insists he’s in a really good place right now. And when it comes to being at the right place at the right time, Earnhardt told SiriusXM Radio on Tuesday, “We have a way of kind of stepping up in these situations…I feel confident that we’re going to have a good Speedweeks.”

Jim: We've only seen practice and qualifying, but from all indications, it seems Earnhardt will have a strong car capable of getting him in position for a win. In the 500, that's about all you can hope for. After that, circumstances and talent tend to complete the picture. By all accounts, he is excited and ready to start the new season. I have no doubts he will once again be a contender for NASCAR's biggest race prize. 

Nick: I think Jr. will be one of the main ones to beat on Sunday. It will look like he didn't miss a day. He is in his element at these plate tracks, so it's the perfect place for him to make his return.

Tim: I think he’ll have a great race unless he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates can’t figure out why their cars are so loose in the corners. I think he wants to show everyone he’s back and just like his late father, he’s mastered the art of drafting on a restrictor plate and unless something mechanical happens or he gets caught up in a wreck or the aforementioned issue – he should be in contention for the win.

2. Who would be your longshot pick to win the Daytona 500 and why?

Lee: Austin Dillon is my longshot for the Daytona 500. Although Dillon is still looking for his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win, among active drivers his average finish of 11.7 at Daytona International Speedway tops all current drivers. Despite landing on his lid in the 2015 July race, he still salvaged a seventh-place finish. And wouldn't the crowd go nuts on Sunday if the No. 3 returned to Victory Lane? 

Jim: I'm going to go with Ryan Blaney. The Wood Brothers have surprised before with a young driver. Everyone remember Trevor Bayne? And, as far as experience goes, I think Blaney is in a far better position than Bayne was at the time of his win and the Wood Brothers are as well. Not only are they running full-time now, but they have a technical alliance with Team Penske - no slouches when it comes to restrictor-plate races of late.

Nick: Well if we're talking longshots, I'd go with Michael Waltrip. He's said that this will be his final race and it coincides with his 30th Daytona 500. It would be such the perfect story and an unlikely one at that, but you can't say Waltrip isn't capable. He is a two-time Daytona 500 champion and with the mindset that this is it, he may very well surprise some people.

Tim: I’m going with Clint Bowyer. I don’t know if you could call him a longshot to win in the equipment he now has at Stewart Hass Racing, but it’s been a while since he’s been to Victory Lane. I think the combination of his winless streak and with a new team and manufacturer warrants this prediction. Besides all of that, can you imagine the Victory Lane party afterwards?

3. Who do you think will be the best performing rookie driver in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season opener?

Lee: Unless Grant Enfinger is collected in someone else’s mess, the driver of the No. 98 Tundra should find himself up front on Friday. Enfinger’s 13th truck start proved lucky for the part-timer. After qualifying second last fall at Talladega Superspeedway, Enfinger led 45 laps on way to his first truck win. With NASCAR’s youth brigade, it’s hard to think of a 32-year-old rookie in the truck series. But as Enfinger proved en route to the 2015 ARCA title, a little maturity goes a long way in racing.

Jim: On pure speed, I think Noah Gragson at Kyle Busch Motorsports has the chance to really outshine some of his fellow rookies and even get to Victory Lane this season. He's also been one of the best on road courses in the K&N series in the last year. I also think Austin Cindric at Brad Keselowski Racing will have a good season, in large part because he has such a diverse portfolio of driving experience that cannot be matched my many others in the Truck series field each week.

Nick: Austin Cindric, simply because he is so versatile. He is great at adapting to his environment and is used to driving on the edge at some of the most vicious circuits on the planet in a variety of cars.. I doubt Daytona will intimidate this rookie and if he can survive the carnage, he will emerge near the top of the leaderboard.

Tim: I think you’ll see some surprises in the truck race for sure on Friday and I’m going with Grant Enfinger just because of his experience at Daytona. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Austin Cindric is there at the end challenging as well. Enfinger due to his experience and Cindric mostly due to the fact he’ll have a fast Ford F-150.

4. Can Danica Patrick score a win this season? If not, do you think she’ll score better finishes on average each week this year?

Lee: I would be very surprised if Patrick A) won a race and B) if she did, it occurred anywhere other than a restrictor plate track. Patrick, 36, has not exhibited the necessary growth to compete at the Cup level. In four full seasons on the tour, her average finish has only improved from 26.1 to 22nd. Last year, she led a career-high 30 laps over the course of 36 races but couldn’t muster a top 10 finish. The novelty has worn off. 

Jim: Having not earned a top-five finish in the Cup series thus far, I don't see it likely. Generally, you see a progression from drivers of consistently earning top-10s, then top-fives before knocking on the door to Victory Lane. I've seen no marked improvement during Patrick's now four seasons in NASCAR's premier series. 

Nick: Although she did well in The Clash, I doubt Danica will reach Victory Lane in 2017. She hasn't shown much improvement over the last couple years, so I find it hard to believe that will suddenly change. But who knows, with the switch to Ford, maybe that will help raise Danica's program to the level of her teammates.

Tim: While I’m on record saying that I think Patrick will finish in the top-10 at Daytona (actually I think she can finish in the top five), that will be a big change from the rest of the season unless she really shows some improvement on the 1.5-mile tracks. If she does get a win this season I think it will be at Daytona or Talladega, but anything can happen and she really needs a win this season.

5. Who is the driver you predict will win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series titles?

Lee: Cup - Joey Logano; Xfinity - Elliott Sadler; Trucks - Christopher Bell

Jim: Cup - Joey Logano. He's been knocking on the door the last two years. I think he finally kicks it in.
Xfinity - This one is tough, but I'll go with experience over youth and take Elliott Sadler, who came close last season to winning his first series title.
Trucks - Christopher Bell. He has the talent and with a year under his belt with KBM, there is no reason he can't return to the Championship 4 at Homestead and win it all.

Nick: Well I hate to boast, but I did correctly predict all three champions last year. However, that was going into the finale. At the beginning of the season, anything is possible. I truly think Martin Truex Jr. could come out on top in the Cup Series, having flirted with it last year. In the Xfinity Series, I believe Elliott Sadler finally busts through that glass ceiling and is crowned champion. How many more times could he finish second before he catches a break? As for the Truck fight, I'm looking at Matt Crafton to retake the title. The entire organization was thrown off by the devastating fire last year and he still came close to getting a third, so 2017 could very well be the year he secures the trophy once again.

Tim: Cup - Joey Logano. I think this is the year he finally puts it all together throughout the playoffs and celebrates his first NASCAR Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Xfinity - William Byron. He proved last year moving up doesn’t intimidate him and he’ll have the resources at JR Motorsports like he did at KBM in the truck series last season.
Trucks – Timothy Peters. The trendy pick among some of my colleagues is Christopher Bell, but I think the veteran still has the fire to get his first title. 

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