Undoubtedly, Sunday’s 64th annual Daytona 500 marks one of the greatest changes in the history of the NASCAR Cup Series. Beyond the new driver and team combinations, the Cup Series embraces a slew of changes including the new Next Gen stock car.
While each wheel features one lugnut and the cars are radically different from the prior Gen 6, they’re still the premier stock cars in the U.S. Moreover, the objectives remain the same – to win the NASCAR Cup Series title.
Heading into 2022, Kyle Larson and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team vie for another dominant effort after winning the championship. Although the goal may seem simple on paper, the reality is that the road to another Cup may be as difficult as winning this year’s Daytona 500.
If Thursday evening’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels proved as a prelude to this year’s “Great American Race,” it may showcase a resurgence for the revamped RFK Racing. Then again, if an old maxim proves true about things staying the same despite more things changing, it may be a Hendrick Motorsports battle against Joe Gibbs Racing.
Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview the latest NASCAR Cup Series race. In this case, as a treat to fans, we’re doing a special preview of the Busch Light Clash at the LA Coliseum.
This weekend, Ashley Hobbs, Cody Shoppe, Jasmine Sharpe, Kobe Lambeth, Luis Torres, Matt Sisoler, Michelle Raynor, Molly Gastineau, Nathan Solomon, Sam Draiss, Sean Folsom, Stephen Conley, Taylor Kitchen and yours truly ponder about a juggernaut team battle in the Daytona 500 and the best underdog story to watch on Sunday!
Podium Preview: Daytona 500
Hendrick Motorsports showcased some speed on Wednesday night’s front row qualifying session while RFK Racing demonstrated some race pace mastery in the Duels. Ultimately, which of these two organizations stands the best shot at winning the Daytona 500?
Hobbs : Unless something drastic took place in the offseason, while they may have speed, RFK Racing is still Roush Fenway (Keselowski) Racing, who hasn’t been on their game for some years. You can’t jump from a third tier team to a first tier overnight, or over an off-season. It’s going to take time for any big changes Brad Keselowski brings over to be fully seen. It’s an easy call that HMS stands the best chance at winning the Daytona 500.
Tiongson : Yes, I would be that journalist who’d ask, “But what about Team Penske?” However, this question is concerned with choosing between RFK and Hendrick Motorsports. Presently, I think the Hendrick Motorsports quartet as the best of this bunch in terms of the total package. They may have been adrift of the lead pack during Thursday night’s Duels but the Daytona 500 is the race that everyone’s pursuing for eternal NASCAR glory.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Kyle Larson’s performance during Daytona Speedweeks mainly because he’s not the first driver that comes to mind with superspeedway racing action. All told, he’s the defending Cup champion and perhaps he’s studied a lot of film ahead of this year’s Daytona 500. If Larson can keep himself out of trouble, I look for him to be the lead driver in “The Great American Race.”
Sharpe : Looking back at this week so far, it appears that the Fords within the RFK Racing shop have made a pretty huge statement by winning both duels. As much as I love Team Hendrick and seeing the team rise back up over the past three years, it appears that the Fords are better equipped at this time to handle big speedways with their aero package.
The Daytona 500 is well known for its chaotic outcomes, with last year’s winner (McDowell) taking the victory at the last minute. Looking back, the last time we saw RFK Racing this dominant was in the mid 2000s when Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth were behind the wheel. I would love to see this racing organization back out on top.
Torres : When it comes to superspeedway races in the past, Ford has been the team to beat. Even with the seventh-generation Cup car, it still feels like Ford is ahead of the curve. RFK Racing is now different and I like their odds more than Hendrick Motorsports. The only way I can see Ford not winning the 500 is if Chevrolet does something different in strategy.
What I saw in the Duel races, Ford played the strategy game right over the Chevys. Due to this, Hendrick wasn’t able to own the pack. That’ll be key going into the 500 and if it were to boil down to strategy, Chevy must think bold or copy Ford’s tactics. Otherwise, RFK and Ford are going to be tough to beat.
Raynor : I feel like Hendrick and Fords will dominate the races. Fords always do well.
Solomon : Coming off of consecutive championship seasons, I’d have to say Hendrick Motorsports. That group has always worked extremely well together, even if they haven’t had the most success of late at Daytona. Obviously, RFK swept the duels, but both Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher stayed up front without any teammate help. We still don’t know how well the two work together on track. I’ll have to stick with HMS as their core has been together longer.
Draiss : Any choice on a superspeedway seems like a random tossup nowadays with how wild and chaotic every event seems to be. Hendrick had an obvious dominant season last year and may seem like the favorite to win. But this is superspeedway racing. Fords always seem to dominate these races nowadays. Despite a rebrand and recent struggles, I’ve got RFK outdoing Hendrick on Sunday.
We’ve seen some great stories from the likes of Jacques Villeneueve, Greg Biffle, Noah Gragson and Kaz Grala making the Daytona 500. Which of these drivers will come home with the best finish?
Conley : I think it’s going to be fun watching all four of these drivers. Grala and Villeneuve are with brand new teams who want to finish with their cars in one piece and no issues, so I don’t expect them to be too far forward. Biffle will have a great shot with his experience and showed good speed in the Duels.
But, Noah Gragson has the aggressiveness that could put him up front, and with Beard Motorsports’ focus on Daytona and Talladea, they are certainly a contender for an easy top 10. If he can control that aggression, Gragson will surprise on Sunday.
Shoppe : While I don’t expect to see any of these teams to have the outright speed, experience, equipment and crew to run up front all day, any of them can hang in there all day and pick up a great finish surviving the big ones!
I predict the Money Team No. 50 of Kaz Grala will sneak into the best finish among them just like his Duel race Thursday!
Lambeth : Noah Gragson has matured a lot as a driver since he failed to qualify for last year’s Daytona 500. To say the least, it was a character building experience for the Xfinity Series regular. If he stays out of trouble, I believe he can give Beard Motorsports a solid result on the high banks of Daytona. Gragson has a lot to look forward to in 2022, making his Cup debut on Sunday and running a handful of Cup races with Kaulig Racing alongside his Xfinity program with JR Motorsports.
Sisoler : I honestly think that any single one of these guys could find themselves at the front of this pack of either new drivers, new teams or both. I have to say, just based on the combination of team, car and driver all put together, that Noah Gragson and Beard Motorsports have the best shot to finish at the top of this group, maybe even near the top of the field. Beard always puts together bad-fast superspeedway Chevys, and Gragson has shown an adeptness at these tracks in Xfinity.
If it was just drivers, I’d say Greg Biffle, because Biffle has easily the most experience behind the wheel of a stock car of any of these drivers and is a proven winner, but it’s more than the driver, which is why I say that Gragson and the No. 62 Camaro have the best shot.
Gastineau : When thinking about this question, I had an immediate answer. The two people that come to the front of my thinking are Biffle and Gragson. It’s exciting to see Biffle back in the cup series. He has a lot of knowledge and knows how to drive a car. I think he will do well if he can stay out of the inevitable Daytona mess.
Overall though, I believe Gragson will finish best out of the four. After being so close to making the 500 last year, I think he has double the drive to perform well. He always drives with a lot of passion and emotion, and I think being in the 500 amplifies all of those feelings. The question will be whether or not he can control all of those feelings while in the car.
Folsom : I think out of that list of talented drivers I think Greg Biffle and Kaz Grala have the best chance out of all of them. Now if I have to pick one I will have to go with Greg Biffle. He has most experience racing Daytona, But with the Next Gen car everything is all new and very different for all drivers this year.
Kitchen : Greg Biffle’s experience will give him the best finish out of the drivers that have had to race their way in.
That’s our qualifying laps ahead of Sunday’s Daytona 500. Now, before we get back to “The Great American Race,” let’s reflect on how last season’s TPF Cup standings finished from the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021!
Congratulations to Ashley Hobbs on winning another TPF Cup! While she’s proven that stats prevail over intuition, the battle continues for 2022! Speaking of Hobbs, here’s her segment, back again, with “Crunching the Numbers: Daytona 500!”
Before we consider our picks for this year’s Daytona 500, various panelists weighed in with their thoughts on who may win this year’s NASCAR Cup Series title! Check out our picks now!
Hobbs : It’s always easy to pick the defending champion, or even someone from the Final 4. But what happened last year is not necessarily an indicator of this year; just look at Kevin Harvick 2020 vs. 2021. That said, I am going with Kyle Busch to turn his Playoff misfortunes around (come the time) and reign Rowdy once again.
Raynor : This is a tough one. With the new car, it seems anyone can win it. I would say Kyle Larson but I do not think he will repeat. With that being said, I’m going out on a limb and say between Kyle Busch or Martin Truex, I’ll pick Kyle.
Shoppe : With the return of practice and qualifying in 2022, I see a return of dominance for Kyle Busch. I think Rowdy wins the title this year! By the way, if you are a KFB hater, don’t worry. This likely means he won’t actually win!
Tiongson : I’ll easily say Kyle Larson but that’s because I know better than to dismiss a driver and team that won 10 points paying races, 11 if the NASCAR All-Star Race counted. Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels gel as well as Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham and Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. I don’t know if they’ll win 10 races like last year. Ultimately, they’ll do enough to repeat their incredible feat!
Sharpe : Whew, what a nail biting question to start the season out with. I have to pick one of the Hendrick drivers, but am unable to pin down which one of the four are most likely. Larson after this past season was a monster, but with teammates like Chase Elliot, Alex Bowman, and William Byron, the possibilities are endless. To the other contenders, all I can say is good luck and try to keep up.
Draiss : The new car will be a huge equalizer. But nobody does better consistently in literally anything you throw at them more than the Kyle and Kyle Show. Larson and Busch will be the ones to beat for me, but between the two? You have to go with Larson!
Lambeth : Kyle Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels will keep the good times rolling and run it back. I don’t see any reason why Hendrick Motorsports can’t pick up where they left off at the end of last season. New car? No problem. Larson seems destined for more great accomplishments in NASCAR, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he wins multiple championships before it’s all said and done.
Sisoler : I’d want to go opposite of everyone and not pick Kyle Larson, but that combination of Hendrick speed, Larson’s talent and Cliff Daniels’ on top of the pit box makes that No. 5 Chevrolet the favorite in my opinion, and he’ll be the first repeat champion since Jimmie Johnson’s five-straight titles from 2006-2010.
Gastineau : It’s pretty difficult for me to pick someone other than Kyle Larson. After completely dominating last year and then landing the pole for the 500 this year already, it doesn’t seem like he’s lost any fire. If I were to pick a second person though, I’d have to go with Brad Keselowski. He seems pretty motivated since switching teams and I think he has the potential to do really well.
Folsom : I’m going to have to pick Kyle Larson. With his championship win last season, he is a shoe in pick for me! Kyle Larson looked very good and fast in the Duel race. Team Larson for the Daytona 500!
Kitchen : There are three drivers I believe have the best shot at winning the championship this year. I have never been someone who takes risks, so, for the sake of playing it safe, the easy choice is Larson.
However, if this season does not work out for Larson, be prepared to see a Ford driver (Perhaps Penske) sweep the championship out from under Larson’s feet as they have shown early speed in The Clash and The Duels.
Conley : This is a tough choice with the new car, we really don’t have much to base it off of as for performance. But, how can you argue with success? The Cup championship goes through Hendrick Motorsports once again and this year, another first timer. Alex Bowman wins it all.
TPF Stats : Off-season means that the formulas can be looked at and improved. Even with adjustments to the math, one driver kept appearing at (or near) the top for 2022 – Martin Truex Jr.
Let’s consider the top 10 starters for the 64th annual Daytona 500!
Last but not least, here’s our picks to win the Daytona 500!
Solomon : Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is always a threat on superspeedways and an underrated driver in these races. He’s won at Daytona and is someone who can never be counted out. With a new voice from the spotter stand in Tab Boyd, Stenhouse will get in done for his first Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Tiongson : While the fast primary car is now in North Carolina for some TLC, look for Joey Logano to bring his backup car to Daytona’s victory lane, overcoming a bitter defeat.
Raynor : Fords are good here and Joey Logano was fast in the Duels before his lap 60 crash.
Lambeth : I was pleasantly surprised by RFK Racing’s strong performance in the Duels on Thursday night. After both entries failed to advance to the main event in Los Angeles, I didn’t expect them to look as good as they did and sweep the Duels. They sent a strong message to the field. With that said, I think Brad Keselowski will get his first Daytona 500 victory.
Kitchen : I made a bold pre-season prediction that Brad Keselowski would win the Daytona 500… let’s see if I’m correct!
Sharpe : Hear me out. The veteran driver is paired up with a great team that works beside JGR. Who is in JGR? Kyle Busch. We’ve seen the results of these two brothers working together. There’s a great chance these two will pair up once more and bring Toyota a season opening win with spice and style.
Torres : I’ve said Ryan Blaney is going to win the Daytona 500 for a good while. He has the momentum after winning the August race and I don’t see that changing. This time around, Blaney will finally capture that elusive Daytona 500 win.
When you really think about it, Blaney has had chances to win the race but have come up short on multiple occasions. That’ll change this Sunday and will bring Team Penske its overdue third 500 victory.
Shoppe : The last time a rookie entered the Daytona 500 with the Wood Brothers while making his second career start, Trevor Bayne won it! That was also February 20th! All the coincidences aside, the Fords have so much speed and Harrison Burton can stay out of trouble and capitalize late!
TPF Stats : Kevin Harvick went winless in 2021 after an outstanding 2020 season. If momentum carries through the off-season, hopefully it leads Harvick back to his winning ways. Bonus points for Harvick – he was the best driver on the superspeedway tracks last season.
Hobbs: Given his recent success at Daytona, I look for Denny Hamlin to grab another Daytona 500 trophy, his third in the last five years.
Sisoler : With everything up in the air with the NextGen/Generation 7 cars introduction to points-paying competition, it is anyone’s guess who could win this year’s Daytona 500. Trackhouse has shown some solid speed, and with the Melon Man Ross Chastain, who has a penchant for putting his car near the front at superspeedway races, piloting the No. 1, I think he’ll be the first winner in the Gen 7 cars and take his inaugural Cup Series win at his home track.
We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win? Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!
Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week! Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine!
The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.
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