Season starts with a bang at Daytona - South Dade News Leader: Opinion

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Season starts with a bang at Daytona

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Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2019 9:35 pm | Updated: 11:19 am, Fri Feb 22, 2019.

Matthew Becherer

Last week in this space we looked ahead to commencement of the 2019 NASCAR season at Daytona International Speedway. Now, “Speedweeks,” which is comprised of many racing events at Daytona during the two weeks leading up to the start of the season, has come and gone with Sunday’s running of the 61st DAYTONA 500 marking the final event in Daytona before NASCAR heads to Atlanta this weekend.

For fans and the industry, last weekend was one to remember. The DAYTONA 500 continues to be one of the biggest spectacles in all of sports, but Daytona also provides entertaining races in NASCAR’s other two national series – the NASCAR Xfinity Series (NXS) and the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series (NGOTS).

On Friday and Saturday, we saw a pair of first-time race winners as Austin Hill took home the checkered flag in the truck series race and Michael Annett won the Xfinity series race. On Friday night, the NGOTS NextEra Energy 250 felt like a fireworks show as 11 cautions came out and only nine trucks were on the track during the final lap. In all my years watching NASCAR, I can’t recall watching a race where that few cars finished a race.

Saturday’s NASCAR Racing Experience 300 was entertaining in a much different kind of way as only four cautions came out and we saw a mostly clean race. With their victories, both Hill and Annett locked themselves into this year’s playoffs in their respective series, which will culminate during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, November 15-17.

For the grand finale on Sunday, the DAYTONA 500 saw the superstars come out as Super Bowl MVP, Julian Edelman, and three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt, took part in the pre-race ceremonies, serving as the honorary starter and grand marshal, respectively. 1972 DAYTONA 500 winner and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner, A.J. Foyt, was also taking in Sunday’s race, and in addition to the celebrities on-hand, “The Great American Race” was run in front of a sold out crowd of more than 100,000 spectators, all of whom were treated to a spectacular race.

After the race started on a relatively quiet note, a number of big crashes began to eliminate drivers by the bunches. Following a wreck on pit road and another incident that collected more than ten cars, the field was whittled down to about 12 cars on the lead lap for the final start.

As Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch lined up on the front row for the final restart, they battled out front while reigning MENCS champion, Joey Logano, tried to team up with Ryan Preece to make a move for the lead. Ultimately, Logano’s attempt was to no avail and Hamlin was able to race back to the finish line to capture the second DAYTONA 500 victory of his career, joining Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple DAYTONA 500 wins.

Hamlin’s win was an emotional moment for both him and the Joe Gibbs Racing organization as a whole. In January, Joe Gibbs’ son, J.D., passed away at just 49 years old due to a degenerative neurological disease. For Hamlin, J.D. was an important figure in his racing career as he gave Hamlin his first opportunity to race in one of NASCAR’s national series after discovering him while racing late models in Virginia.

From the moment J.D. found Hamlin, he vaulted through the NASCAR ranks with Joe Gibbs Racing and eventually landed in the MENCS driving the No. 11 car, the same number that J.D. Gibbs wore while playing football at College of William and Mary. As Hamlin embraced J.D.’s wife, Melissa, and spoke about his relationship with J.D., it was truly an incredible moment to witness and you couldn’t help but feel his joy and raw emotion.

Hamlin wasn’t the only Joe Gibbs Racing to have a successful race on Sunday. Kyle Busch and Erik Jones rounded out the top three as one of NASCAR’s preeminent teams got off to a fast start in 2019. Last season, we saw Stewart-Haas fleet of Fords dominate the regular season as Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick combined to win ten races before the playoffs got underway. Based on the DAYTONA 500 results, it feels like Joe Gibbs might replace Stewart-Haas as the team to beat this year.

The 2019 NASCAR campaign certainly kicked off with a bang at Daytona International Speedway and will look to continue this weekend when all three national series head to Atlanta Motor Speedway.

NASCAR ACTION THIS WEEKEND

Sunday, February 24 at 2:00 PM (ET)

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor Quicktrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Tune In: FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90

Saturday, February 23 at 2:00 PM (ET)

NASCAR Xfinity Series Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Tune In: FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90

Saturday, February 23 at 4:30 PM (ET)

NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Atlanta 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Tune In: FS1 and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90

UPCOMING EVENTS AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY

Feb. 23-24

National Auto Sport Association

Mar. 8

Fast Lane Friday

Mar. 22

Fast Lane Friday

Mar. 30

Performance Driving Group

Mar. 31

Florida Track Days

Apr. 5

Fast Lane Friday

Apr. 6-7

Chin Motorsports Car Club

Apr. 20-21

Sports Car Club of America

Apr. 27-28 Championship Cup Series

2019 HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY NASCAR DATES

Nov. 15

Ford EcoBoost 200 Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship Race

Nov. 16

Ford EcoBoost 300 XFINITY Series Championship Race

Nov. 17

Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy Series Championship

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