Twenty of NASCAR’s top drivers to clash in Daytona this Sunday

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 11: Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 DOW Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 11, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

This Sunday afternoon’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) features a group of 20 drivers with vastly different experience levels in the 75-lap exhibition event – but all highly-motivated to make this first race of Daytona Speedweeks a statement-maker leading into the Feb. 17 season-opening Daytona 500.

There are only two multi-time Clash winners in the field – three-time champs Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Only seven of the 20 have ever won the race before. Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski earned his first Clash win last year leading his Team Penske teammate – and the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Joey Logano across the line in the thrilling traditional first taste of Cup racing action.

Hamlin is unique in that he took to this race quickly. And often. He remains the only driver to ever win the Clash (2006) as a rookie. He answered with victories in 2014 and 2016 and his 142 laps led total is most among anyone competing this week – proving Hamlin both a quick learner and a perennial favorite when it comes to this sprint race.

He’s certainly never been more motivated than this weekend.

Hamlin shows up in Daytona Beach paired with a new crew chief in Chris Gabehart and a new car chief in Eric Phillips – both moving up in-house from the Joe Gibbs Racing team’s Xfinity Series level.

As for Hamlin, he is eager to quickly regain his footing as a perennial Cup winner. He did not win in 2018 – the first season in his 13-year fulltime career without a victory.

A win in the Clash is a solid season start for any driver. For Hamlin and his team, it’s a specific goal that may well supply the championship boost this longtime title contender is seeking to reclaim.

“Certainly it’s not up to the expectations of what I believe we’re capable of, but sometimes in sports you just have those seasons where things don’t go right or you just don’t get the job done at the level you expect to and you’ve got to reset and refocus from that,” Hamlin said of last year’s struggles.

The Clash provides a high-energy opportunity to do just that. And Hamlin – the 2016 Daytona 500 winner certainly will be considered a favorite in any event at the Daytona International Speedway during the next two weeks.

It’s field is comprised of drivers who won a Busch Pole Award in 2018, are former Clash winners who also competed fulltime last season, former Daytona 500 winners who competed fulltime last season and all the drivers who qualified for the 2018 Monster Energy Series Playoffs.

It has certainly created a diversely experienced field  – with 10 drivers in Sunday afternoon’s race having five or fewer starts in the event. Four drivers – Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez – will be making only their second appearance in the race.

It was a good debut for Blaney last year, running competitively with his 1-2 finishing Penske Racing teammates for much of the event and ultimately finishing fourth – best among the 2018 first-time “Clashers”. Jones was eighth. Bowman made his only start in 2017 finishing third and Suarez returns to the Clash field after an eighth-place finish in 2017.

Bowman’s third place effort in his only start technically gives him the best average finish in the field this weekend, but the defending winner Keselowski’s 7.8 average is best among those with at least five starts.

Joining Hamlin, Harvick, Blaney, Keselowski, Logano, Jones and Suarez this weekend will be Aric Almirola, who is coming off a career best fifth place in the 2018 championship standings. Clint Bowyer, a two-race winner in 2018, Kurt Busch and his younger brother, last year’s eight-time race winner Kyle Busch will also be on the grid. Defending Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, the sport’s Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott, who picked up his first three career Cup wins last year, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, and 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. fill out the starting lineup.

Interestingly, the Clash winner has gone on to win the Daytona 500 the following week – only six times. Hamlin was the last to do it in 2016 and is the only active driver with that distinction.

The competition, however, lies in wait. Just returning to the track is a big deal for most of the field – many who did not have the chance to test during the recent offseason.

“For me, I haven’t been back in the car since Homestead,” said Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, whose best showing in two previous Clash races is seventh (2017).

“It will be nice to get in a race and make sure everything looks right and feels right and those cars are really similar to one another usually from the Clash to the 500. So yeah, I’m sure there’s things to learn.

“Obviously the distance is much shorter in the Clash but car-wise it will be a good start, good look at things.”

With so many different variables coming into the 2019 season, Hamlin is optimistic his enviable track record at Daytona can provide exactly the kind of positive launching point for the season as a whole.

“I think this year with there being so many different changes within the cars themselves, it’s going to be pretty much a reset for everyone,” Hamlin said. “That allows us to get back to square one. I’m working with a new crew chief who’s coming from the Xfinity side, so he’s got more of a clean slate to kind of work from now.

“He doesn’t have to look at too many old notes because of the drastic change in the cars, so it allows us all to just come in here like a new race team, like a lot of our teams will be this year, to come in there refocused and get ready to hopefully win the first race of the season.”

Greg Engle