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Track Talk: A Preview of the Daytona 500

It’s the first Crown Jewel race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season.  Some call it “The Super Bowl of stock car racing.” Others may just consider it the season opener.  All of those are true but ultimately, it’s best known as “The Great American Race.”

Daytona International Speedway has been a NASCAR fixture since 1959 with the Daytona 500 as its marquee event during its annual stock car Speedweeks event.  Uniquely, it’s the opening race of the Cup season and also its biggest and most prestigious event of the season.

Racers duel in at least 200 laps or 500 miles of chess at over 195 miles per hour at the 2.5-mile renovated and revitalized speedway of dreams.  Leaders will often swap spots in two to three wide formations that would make us think of our rush hour commute to work except these drivers can trade some paint here and there (and in real life, we would probably be helping GEICO, AAA, or Progressive make some money for doing that).  To those not in the driver’s seat, it’s either exciting or nerve wracking.

One driver’s mistake could cause a huge crash or “The Big One” that turns these multi-million dollar machines into a pile of junk all because of an error in judgement in the pack.  There’s really no safe spot on the track except the garage but that’s only unless you don’t want to try the high speed game of risk and glory.

Today’s Daytona 500 is the first without Jeff Gordon since 1992 but he’ll be a part of the FOX NASCAR crew as their newest analyst alongside play-by-play man Mike Joy and longtime commentator and three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.  Notably, it’s the first 500 without Tony Stewart since 1998 as he’s recovering from his offseason surgery attending to his burst fracture of his L1 vertebra from a non-racing related ATV crash in the West Coast.  All of us here at The Podium Finish look forward to Stewart’s return in what will be his farewell season in the Cup series.

We at TPF are excited for another great year of NASCAR racing.  Returning to TPF are Ashley Hobbs, our statistician guru and Associate Editor-in-chief, Ashley Hull, featured columnist, and Jessica Tow, NASCAR analyst.  Joining the team for their first full seasons are Cody Shoppe, stock car and open wheel columnist, Kathleen Cassidy, fan and social media analyst, Katie Copple, NASCAR analyst,  Kerstin Smutny, racing analyst, and Stephen Conley, featured columnist.  NASCAR racer Patrick Staropoli will be our recurring expert analyst This will be a great year of racing on the track and coverage wise for us – we look forward to being the site that’s the “Inside Lane to Motorsports.”  With that, let’s kick things off with Track Talk’s first segment, “Trending Topics!”

Trending Topics by Rob Tiongson
Question 1
2015 was green but will yellow in 2016 mean the same results?

2015 was green but will yellow in 2016 mean the same results?

After overcoming tremendous odds and serious injuries to score the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, can Kyle Busch repeat his victorious feat and become a two-time Cup champ in as many years?

Tow :  If anyone other than Jimmie Johnson has the caliber to go back-to-back winning repeat Championships, it is Kyle Busch. However, the younger Busch brother is in the same position this year that Kevin Harvick was in in last year when it came down to defending his Championship. The only difference here: Busch suffered a horrible injury during the season opening race weekend at Daytona and went through weeks/months of rehab without strapping into his car.

There’s something to be said about the correlation between injuries and the drive/passion/perseverance that is drawn out when someone is prohibited from doing something they love or something they have grown accustomed to. Busch came back from his injuries with an unyielding hunger that other drivers may not have had, or if they did it wasn’t to that type of injury-ridden caliber. Harvick put forth a valiant effort to the very end last year but it was Busch’s Championship come Homestead and everyone knew it. Busch certainly has a great chance to go back-to-back, but with this new elimination style playoff format it really is anyone’s Championship to lose. We will see what fate lies with the No. 18 M&M’s team as the season progresses!

Hobbs :  That is a great question! After years of trying to perfect the Chase, it seems that Kyle Busch has finally figured it out. With a field just as strong, if not stronger this year, everyone will have to up their game a bit if they want to firstly, make it into the Chase, and stay alive for a long time. Kyle Busch barely made it out of the first two rounds this year, and if he wants a chance to repeat, those first 6 races will need to be put together much better.

Conley :  Kyle Busch will no doubt be a contender. He knows a lot of people put a star next to his Championship since he didn’t run all the races. With that being said, he will a major force in a snarling pack of hungry dogs but he won’t come out on top as there are a few that had a bone snatched away last year and they will do anything to get it back.

Shoppe :  Kyle Busch’s 2015 Championship run was extraordinary and miraculous. Busch is without a doubt a deserving champion and both he and his JGR team are more then capable of going back to back. However, I am not quite ready to make the M&M’s team my championship pick just yet.

Hull :  If anything, there will be a lot of pressure on him to repeat his title. He is already on the right track by winning the second Can-Am Duel race Thursday night. He has really matured since being a rookie and has taken adversity and has been using it as a positive thing. Not only that, he has a great crew chief and Joe Gibbs Racing is now a formidable organization that could produce another champion this year. So yes, I think he has a great shot at it.

Copple :  He is starting off the season with a Duel Race win already and still riding high from his Championship win. I don’t doubt he will excel this season and be in contention for the Championship at the end of the 2016 season. Kyle Busch has one of the best comeback Championship winning stories in NASCAR and also has a great support system in his team, his wife and his son. He will continue to impress us for years to come as well.

Cassidy :  I do not think Kyle Busch will repeat last year to become a two-time Cup champion. I believe that Kyle Busch’s injury gave him the momentum to come back and race the way he did.

Smutny :  He did overcome a lot last season and that is impressive but I don’t see him repeating as Cup champion.  The competition will step up to the plate in 2016 and while they’ll be a factor, someone else will stand tall in champion’s winner circle.

Question 2
Chase Elliott has big shoes to fill but he's starting things off right with the No. 24 team.

Chase Elliott has big shoes to fill but he’s starting things off right with the No. 24 team.

Chase Elliott scored his first ever Coors Light Pole Award in grand fashion by doing it for this Sunday’s 58th Daytona 500.  Is this just a preview of what’s to come for the new driver of the No. 24 ride or perhaps a flash of brilliance in a year that’s bound to be eventful for this Cup rookie?

Tow :  Pause for a second and think about it…Chase Elliott, the newest driver of the No. 24 car, is starting on the pole of the 2016 Daytona 500….his first major points race in the Sprint Cup Series in what is sure to be an illustrious career. Sure, he has big shoes to fill and a big legacy to carry forward (two to be exact – the No. 24 team’s and the Elliott’s legacies) but he’s starting to carve his path with an Award such as this.

While a Daytona 500 Pole Award is incredible and honorable (especially when it’s for your first race in your very first full-time Sprint Cup Series season), there are still many undetermined factors that we have yet to see but will certainly discover as the season shapes up. Ultimately it isn’t difficult to believe that Chase’s career is off to an excellent start given the equipment that Chase has and the 2015 Championship Contending No. 24 team that he is apart of.

Hobbs :  I sure hope so! We did see rookies Danica Patrick win the pole in 2013 followed by another rookie in Austin Dillon in 2014, but their seasons did not go as well as they would have preferred. What will be hard for Chase Elliott is to not be seen in the big spotlight he has on him; the son of Awesome Bill From Dawsonville and the replacement of four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. This kid has huge shoes to fill, and he knows it, but he also knows he is himself.

In the XFINITY Series, he has always handled himself well, and I expect nothing less as he ventures into the Cup world. As a Gordon fan, I have nothing but high hopes for this new 24 crew, but I also know that Elliott is indeed a rookie in this very competitive series. Let’s also not forget that anyone can win this race, and including Elliott, there are four ROTY candidates in this field (full time) that are just as capable of winning the Daytona 500 as anyone else. This rookie class is bound to make great waves and I am hoping great things for all of them.

Conley :  The pole for the Daytona 500 is a sentimental award for any driver. For Chase, to win it is more about the story behind it and what it means to the legacy of the 24. We’ve had three rookies win the Daytona 500 pole out of the last four years and it hasn’t translated in to much more so far. For Elliott to pick this up shouldn’t be much of a surprise, he’s an amazing talent and this is the same exact car that Jeff sat on the pole at Talladega and this team put the 24 on the pole for the Daytona 500 last year.

Elliott has a lot to prove, but there is no question he can. The pole is a nice start to what might be a full trophy case. It’s just not there yet.

Shoppe :  When Chase Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 it just shows once again that this years rookie class will be one of the most competitive in many years. I don’t necessarily think this pole means much about his ability. A Daytona 500 pole basically shows the ability of a team more so then a driver. Regardless of this pole, Chase Elliott will have a tremendous rookie season! (Ryan Blaney will win Rookie of the year though.)

Hull :  I think that scoring a pole in the biggest race of the year is nothing to scoff at. I think that so far, it looks like he is starting out his first full Cup career pretty well. I think that he has plenty of talent, good racing genes, and he is a quick study, so he will do some good things this year. If not, it will most definitely be a learning experience for him. We will see this season what kind of racer he is.

Copple :  I think Chase Elliott is going to be another Kyle Larson story. He is an extremely talented driver and winning the pole for the Daytona 500 shows us a piece of what he can do. But plate track racing is a completely different beast than short tracks and mile-and-a-halfs and everything in between. He is no doubt going to struggle this season. Moving up to Sprint Cup, especially at a young age, is a steep learning curve. Despite this, he will no doubt turn heads this season. He has three of the BEST drivers in the series as teammates with Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chase Elliott is going to be turning heads for years to come… but this first season is going to be full of ups and downs.

Cassidy :  Although Chase Elliott had a very successful first year in Nationwide/XFINITY series, last year we saw him struggle. Even though he finished second in the points, man struggles got in his way last year. Chase is a talented driver, but I think there’s more then just talent to having a successful season. For this reason, I don’t think Chase Elliott will be as successful as people are hoping.

Smutny :  I think we are seeing a preview of a very good driver. I’m sure his rookie Cup season will be eventful and we could see him finish all over the board. However, I think he is a very solid driver with a bright future.

Question 3
Will the Charter system greatly impact NASCAR in the long run?

Will the Charter system greatly impact NASCAR in the long run?

NASCAR made some sweeping changes to the sport during the off-season including the new Overtime Rule and the Charter System which will be kicking off immediately this weekend and for the next nine years.  Do you see these changes as necessary evils to improve our sport or are troubling signs for the most elite level of stock car racing?

Tow :  The Charter System is interesting and I am still unsure of how I feel about it. On one hand, it’s great because it secures sponsorship presence in our sport by locking in 36 full-time Sprint Cup Series teams. A great example of why this Charter System will work well: Talladega last October – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. failed to qualify for the race and was sent home, leaving his sponsors like Fastenal and Zest completely out of the event with no presence at all. By enforcing this new Charter System, Stenhouse will no longer be faced with that situation again. He and his No. 17 team will only ever have to worry about their qualifying setup in order to see which spot they will be guaranteed to start in during each weekend’s race.

As far as the Overtime Rule goes, that was a great move for the sport especially since the drivers condoned it themselves. This Rule was formed following a collaborative effort between NASCAR and their newly implemented Drivers Council that consists of six drivers from the Sprint Cup Series: Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson. All of these drivers create a unique bunch of perspectives and represent varied backgrounds and opinions. If the drivers are all in for this Rule, then so am I since they are the ones who know our sport the best – even better than us fans do.

Hobbs :  I am a bit put off by the Charter System shifting the field from 43 spots to 40 spots, especially since it was done so close to the start of the season. The underfunded teams know their uphill battle is a great one, but then to hear, “oh, there are three fewer spots.” must have been a punch to the gut for some of these teams. The Overtime Rule, like all things related to the finish of a race, will be loved and hated. It still gives a shot at ending under green, which is the best case scenario.

However, with the line still undefined as it changes per track, there are gray areas. Then there is the fact that many attempts can be made; we know what happens as the race winds down and to put multiple attempts at a finish back in the books seems like NASCAR has taken a step backwards about a decade. The green-white-checkered attempt (three max) was to give the shot at a green finish while still keeping the aggression in check; this new Overtime Rule takes that aggression check (mostly) out. But as all new things, we shall see how it plays out.

Conley :  I think we were heading for troubled waters, but the changes NASCAR has made shows me two things. Their main focus is on the competition and making the fans happy. No one likes a change right off the top, but it grows on you and two. The charter system is a great economic tool to enhance the longevity of the sport as a whole and the contractors that make it profitable (the teams and drivers).

NASCAR knew they needed to protect the heart of the sport, it couldn’t be like days gone by when they just accepted a team leaving. You can’t build a dynasty over night and love it or hate it, stock car empires like Hendrick are vital to the continued growth of a relatively young sport. The charter system now ensures that.

Shoppe :  When the Charter system was being worked out, it was proposed as a way to solidify teams in Sprint Cup racing long into the future after the current top owners have to call it quits(many of which are up there in age). I don’t see how this system does that. This system simply locks these 36 teams in the race no matter what. That may be a good thing but I just don’t agree with the criteria they decided on. Charter system: necessary but could have been done better.

The overtime line will help make it simpler to the fans watching to know when the race will end or if more attempts will be made. This is necessary so help NASCAR make more consistent calls when finishing races.

Hull :  Sadly, even as a writer for a NASCAR blog, no matter how much it has been explained to me, I still don’t understand how these things are going to help anyone. If anything, I think it will further confuse fans and cause them not to tune into the sport quite as much. I also think that NASCAR perhaps angered a lot in the community by not granting Wood Brothers a charter, even after they have been in the sport the longest. Sadly, this once simple sport has further been complicated, for nothing.

Copple :  Yes and no. I am still not sold on this charter system… for one thing, it just confuses me. In the long run, it looks like it will be a successful venture but it’s still too early to tell. As far as the NASCAR Overtime goes, I think this is a great change away from the Green-White-Checkered finishes of seasons past. Will it be successful at all tracks? Who knows, but at tracks like Daytona, I think we will see it work well.

Cassidy :  I view the changes that NASCAR has made in the off season as both positive and negative for our sport. First, with the charter system, we will only see the large teams competing week in and out. Although, I understand NASCAR’s approach to make owners happy, we then see a conglomerate aspect to the sport. Just like media, we have a few major teams that dominate the sport.

This makes it hard for other teams to join the sport. The problem I see with this, is that these teams may have so much to offer to the sport, however beer have the chance. Second, with the overtime rule, I believe this made it more confusing for fans. After reviewing the media release many times I am still not 100% confident on what this rule entails.

Smutny :  It could be troubling for the sport I think. I find it tremendously difficult to keep up with all the rule changes as I’m sure many fans do too.  It’s good to have rules and systems that are consistent but in essence, they need to resonate to even the most layman of fans in racing.

Question 4
Kyle Larson could be the driver breaking through in 2016.

Kyle Larson could be the driver breaking through in 2016.

Which driver and team do you think will make a tremendous statement in 2016 like Martin Truex and his No. 78 team last year?

Tow :  The 2016 season is going to be all about the ROOKIES. My money is on Chase Elliott and/or Ryan Blaney to really make big statements this year. Both drivers have top notch teams and equipment, and have consistently proven to be front runners regardless of the series, etc. It’s going to be a tight competition between all of this year’s rookies – Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, and Brian Scott. Keep tabs on these young guns and you definitely won’t be disappointed.

Hobbs :  Oh boy this is an interesting one. I have always been hoping for the No. 13 Geico team with Casey Mears could capitalize on the success they seem to have had lately at the start of the year, and I will always continue to hope for that. This year, I am adding all the rookies to that list. This rookie class has me very excited for the season and watching these young kids battle between themselves for ROTY as well as the rest of the field for wins and a Chase spot will be incredible!

Conley :  Kyle Larson. In his rookie campaign he was so close to victory lane he could almost feel it under his feet, but the aero changes in 2015 hurt that team more than they let on. The changes that were made for Kentucky and Darlington which will be run this year had the 42 car looking like lightning. They were fastest in testing and practice prior the the Quaker State 400 and got the pole due to rain, but were fast until tire problems popped up. They were a top-five car most of the night at Darlington as well. Based solely on that, the 42 will no doubt grace victory lane this year.

Shoppe :  Ryan Blaney and the Wood Bros. No. 21 team have the most to prove in my opinion. They are more then deserving of a NASCAR Charter but were left out. They will be out to prove their worth all season. I believe with the alliance with Team Penske, the Motorcraft/Quicklane Ford will be the the “single car team” of the year not to mention ROTY.

Hull :  I honestly seeing Ryan Blaney stepping it up and having a similar year like Martin Truex, Jr. did last year. Ever since Wood Brothers Racing has been giving the green light to run a full season and aligning themselves with a powerhouse organization like Penske Racing, they will do great things. Even better, Ryan Blaney is a super talented driver, and has proven many times that he has what it takes to run full time in the Sprint Cup. He has also been able to hold his own so far during all of these Speedweeks races. The best is yet to come with this rookie!

Copple :  I think it’s too soon to answer this question. I would hope that we see someone like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson or Danica Patrick make a big statement this season and surprise us all, but anything can happen. Also, Tony Stewart is retiring at the end of this season and he is already starting off the year on an injured note. I hope he is our big success story of 2016. I would hate to see a driver of Smoke’s caliber have a rough final season.

Cassidy :  With the switch up this year many have doubt in Clint Bowyer. However, just like Truex last year, I believe his talent will bring something to HScott Motorsports. Hoping the 15 team have a successful season and able to learn lots from an experienced driver.

Smutny :  I want to see Austin Dillon do really well! I’d love to see him win! He’s got the ability to and we’ve seen him shine multiple times. I think he’s ready.

We’re just getting warmed up here with Track Talk!  Well done, team.  This segment will be a part of our race previews like in years’ past along with our usual race picks which we’ll get to in just a moment.  Before we reveal our race picks, let’s reflect on last year’s TPF Track Talk Cup points battle:
1) Ashley Hobbs – 2410 points (3 wins)
2) Ashley Hull – 2386 points (5 wins)
3) Rob Tiongson – 2347 points (5 wins)
4) Katie Copple – 2315 points (1 win)
5) Cody Shoppe – 2287 points
6) Patrick Staropoli – 2037 points
7) Jessica Tow – 2003 points (1 win)
Hobbs won her first TPF Track Talk Cup championship after an exciting Chase against Hull and yours truly.  Copple and Shoppe duked it out for that fourth spot until the finale.  Clearly, it was the year where stats prevailed for race predictions!  Will that be the case in 2016?  Only time will tell.

Before getting to our Daytona 500 race picks, let’s reveal our early bird Sprint Cup championship pick!  We’ll keep track of our pick to see if they’ll ultimately prevail as the series victor after all is said and done.  If that pick is the champion, the panelist will earn 40 additional bonus points, the equivalent to a race winner’s points total under the new NASCAR points system.

Yes, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are back posing in a strange hue from the studio.

Yes, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers are back posing in a strange hue from the studio.

Tiongson :  Third time’s the charm for Jimmie Johnson and company to finally win their seventh Sprint Cup championship.  They ran into bad luck in the past two Chase playoffs but they won’t this time.

Shoppe :  I’m going with Jimmie Johnson as my championship pick.

Hobbs :  Jeff Gordon! Oh wait, crap! Let us go for another big trophy for Kevin Harvick at season’s end!

Tow :  It’s going to be Joey Logano who’ll win the Cup.

Conley :  Sprint Cup champion will be…Joey Logano.

Hull :  This is hard for me to pick, because it is too soon to tell, but I can see Kyle Busch defending his title again.

Copple :  Kyle Busch will repeat as Cup champ.

Cassidy :  Brad Keselowski will be our 2016 champion.

Smutny :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win the title.

In the words of Matthew McConaughey, “Alright, alright, alright!”  Let’s reveal our Daytona 500 race picks!
One of these four will make someone on the panelist feeling like a winner!

One of these four will make someone on the panelist feeling like a winner!

Hobbs :  It is hard for me to turn my back against my statistics with this one, even though, in all reality, he has a 2.5% chance of winning just like everyone else. But I am sticking to my methods right out of gate and hoping for another great Sunday for Dale Earnhardt Jr.!

Tow :  I’m going with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the win.

Shoppe :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. is my pick to win the 500.

Cassidy :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win the 500.

Smutny :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win the Daytona 500.

Hull :  Based on what I have seen during Speedweeks and coming off of his Sprint Unlimited victory, Denny Hamlin may end up winning his first Daytona 500. He has a bad fast car for the 500, and can do this thing.

Tiongson :  It’s a hunch feeling and I realize that I’m going against the odds.  Sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the overwhelming favorite but history can be a great reference for deciding on these race picks.  This race weekend has a similar vibe to 2003 when the prognosticators wanted to hand Earnhardt the 500 trophy.  While he’ll certainly be a factor, ultimately, it’s Denny Hamlin’s day at Daytona!

Conley :  I’m going with Regan Smith for the 500.

Copple :  I’m picking Kyle Busch to win the 500.

There you have it, race fans! The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts for today’s Daytona 500!  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team.  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  

Never forget Spock.

Never forget Spock.

Last but not least, this season is dedicated in the loving memory of Spock Tiongson (2001-2016).  A beloved family friend and companion that gave joy to those he held dear to his heart for nearly 15 years, he was friendly, compassionate, and happy for the 5,150 days in which he made us smile and loved us.  

He was my racing companion from the 2001 Michigan race in August all the way through to the 2015 season finale, always sitting beside me with Dexter (1999-2010) and Claudia, his surviving feline friend.  You were more than a cat – you were a friend and family member who we’ll always remember.  Race days will not be the same without you.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”  – Dr. Seuss

That’ll be the mantra we’ll follow for the rest of our lives.  Forever…Spock.

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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