DAYTONA BEACH, Fla – The torch is ready to be passed. Someone is ready to take it. But, who?
When restrictor plate racing was first implemented in NASCAR in the late 1980’s, the first king was Dale Earnhardt. Most say he could see the air in the draft. What he did at Daytona and Talladega was magic. He won 13 points paying races in NASCAR’s premiere series in 90 tries. No one has more.
When Earnhardt tragically passed away in the 2001 Daytona 500, the torch was then passed to his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’d win 10 plate races in 71 tries.
Now, Earnhardt Jr. will be driving the pace car for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season opener, the 60th annual Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He’s retired and the torch is ready to be passed again. But, there’s not another Earnhardt ready (no offense to Jeffrey Earnhardt – Dale Sr’s grandson).
Several Cup drivers weighed in on that subject during the Daytona 500 Media Day on Wednesday. The common theme was a trio of drivers were primed to take over as restrictor plate king.
“I look at Brad (Keselowski) and Denny (Hamlin) as being the top two guys,” Kyle Busch told reporters Wednesday. “I think the speed of (Ricky) Stenhouse’s car was pretty important last year too. He did a good job with it, won some races. But I got to look at Brad and Denny, the things they do, as the guys you kind of watch, see if you can mimic, emulate some of the stuff they have going on in order to get yourself through the pack and up towards the front.”
Kevin Harvick agreed with Busch, something that he doesn’t normally do.
“I think the guys that have the most success right now have been Brad (Keselowski) and Joey (Logano), and I think the Fords have the fastest cars in the race usually when you look at the past restrictor-plate races,” Harvick said. “At some point it’s gonna be a Ford and usually the Hendrick cars qualify fast and then they can’t handle and by the end of the race there’s a Ford up in the front racing for the win.”
Several others mentioned the same ones, Keselowski, Logano and Hamlin.
Keselowski, has 24 Cup victories to his name, six of which have been on restrictor plate tracks. The only plate race that he hasn’t won yet, is the Daytona 500. He’s won three of the last eight plate races in total. In fact, he just won the Clash last Sunday.
As far as Logano goes, he’s a favorite too. He finished runner-up to Keselowski last weekend and has won three plate races to go along with 11 top eight finishes in his last 14 plate starts.
With Ford’s having a clear restrictor plate program advantage, winning seven straight on plate tracks and 11 of the last 14, I’d say that Team Penske duo are ready and primed to be handed the torch.
But, Hamlin is too. He won the 2016 Daytona 500 and has completed all but three laps in 12 Daytona 500 tries. He has what it takes to dominate a plate race as well.
I agree with their peers, these may be the next ones up.