Optimism in high gear at Daytona for NASCAR's top teams
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Optimism abounds after the opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway, especially for NASCAR's top teams.
Teamwork at Joe Gibbs Racing appears as solid as ever despite adding rookie Daniel Suarez to the mix, evidenced by Denny Hamlin, Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch running 1-2-3-4 for much of the Clash at Daytona.
Team Penske's Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski look as if they could continue their recent dominance at restrictor-plate races, and with Stewart-Haas Racing switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, they now have a few extra friends - Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer - to help around NASCAR's most famous track.
Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole again as well as another front-row sweep.
And the usual suspects - Hamlin, Logano and Keselowski - seem to be up front at every turn.
Combine all those notable nuggets, and the 59th running of ''The Great American Race'' on Sunday is setting up to be another unpredictable showcase event.
Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:
HENDRICK HORSEPOWER: Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole-sitter for the third consecutive season and swept the front row for the fourth time in the last eight years. It's a clear indication Hendrick has the horsepower - as usual - to be a factor in NASCAR's opener.
Chase Elliott landed the pole for the second time in as many years, and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his triumphant return to racing by securing the No. 2 starting spot. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of nausea and vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career.
TROUBLING TURN: Although much went right for Hendrick, the four-car team found cause for concern.
Seven-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spun twice in Turn 4 during the Clash at Daytona on Sunday, adding to the team's recent woes in the high-banked corner. Teammates Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had similar issues in the 2016 Daytona 500, both crashing in the final turn.
So what may have seemed like a one-year fluke is now a full-fledged trend for Hendrick.
''It's a concern,'' said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott. ''We have things in place to try to improve that, and we're very aware of it.''
Earnhardt sounded like getting the turn straight would be a priority during the week.
''We're looking at our notes from over the years,'' Earnhardt said, pointing specifically to 2015. ''We'll look at what we did then and what we're doing now and sort of go through the process of elimination, and that's kind of what we've been doing until we fix it.''
NEW RULES: NASCAR's new rules received mixed results in the opening weekend.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson was parked with 14 laps remaining in the Clash for violating NASCAR's new damaged-vehicle policy. Officials said Larson's team had more than six crew members over the wall to work on his damaged No. 42 Chevrolet. NASCAR policy states that teams can't continue in the race if they're caught with too many men over the wall.
''I didn't even know that was a rule,'' Larson said. ''It's just confusing. We know now.''
NASCAR also got its first look at its new concussion assessment testing.
Drivers involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage must report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Concussion assessment tests are administered if care center doctors believe there is a concern of head injury.
Former series champion Kurt Busch was the first to wreck under the new rule and praised the extra evaluation.
''There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,'' Busch said. ''It's just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they've made an effort and it's nice to have that security.''
PATRICK'S RUN: Danica Patrick did it again at Daytona.
Patrick has been solid at times at Daytona since her rookie season when she won the Daytona 500 pole and led five laps. She finished fourth at the Clash, a needed confidence boost following a dismal 2016. She finished 24th in the standings and failed to post a top-10 finish.
Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin crashed on the last lap, allowing Patrick to sneak through for the best finish of her NASCAR career.
''I will say that I got a little lucky, but there's a lot of that in speedway racing,'' she said.
BOWMAN'S LAND: Alex Bowman's final scheduled race for Hendrick Motorsports was a doozy.
He finished third in the No. 88 Chevrolet, his last time subbing for Earnhardt. Earnhardt was cleared to race in the 88 but let Bowman take a deserved turn for his sturdy job in part-time duty last season.
Bowman chatted with Kyle Busch on pit road after the race. Bowman worked hard to pass Busch over the final laps instead of teaming with him to chase the leaders.
Bowman said it was an honor to drive for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. His NASCAR future is unknown.
''It's definitely kind of like a bittersweet feeling,'' he said. ''I don't really know what I have going forward, and I only know of one race for sure that I'm going to run, and it's not a Cup race this year.''
MONSTER DEBUT: Kurt Busch's car was the center of attention of before the Clash. His car's make? A Ford. The model? Try models, the bevy of Monster Energy girls who posed for pictures with bystanders.
Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy - but the energy drink company also took over this season as title sponsor for the Cup series.
Its debut was a monster dud.
Busch hit the wall a few laps into the race, the green squiggly M logo on the hood crushed as the car was towed to the garage.
Other than the Monster girls, there has been little promotion by the company. Monster isn't selling drinks at concession stands, and there are no ads spread around the track.
There was a billboard in the fan zone promoting NBC's television coverage that still had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series logo plastered in the middle.
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report.
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