NASCAR drivers often say the season officially begins with the second race of the season — after the Daytona 500.
While the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's biggest race, it often has little bearing on the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series season. The Super Bowl of stock-car racing makes up 1/26th of the regular season and has little impact on which NASCAR drivers make the 10-race NASCAR playoffs.
The one exception, of course, is the winner, and this year's Daytona 500 winner, Michael McDowell, will reap big rewards for his first career victory. McDowell's win will be a big financial boost for Front Row Motorsports and the win puts him and his team in position to make the playoffs. There is no guarantee, however. He must still finish in the top 30 in points and hope that another 16 NASCAR drivers don't win races this year.
While McDowell was the biggest winner at Daytona, there were plenty of losers among NASCAR drivers who got swept into big crashes, the danger that makes Daytona such a crapshoot.
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The biggest losers, of course, were NASCAR drivers Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, who were each involved in a fiery crash on the final lap. The crash ruined their chances of winning NASCAR's biggest race, but each walked away with decent finishes — Logano 9th, Busch 13th and Keselowski 16th.
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But several other top NASCAR drivers had disappointing finishes and now find themselves in a big hole at the start of the "real regular season."
Of the 20 NASCAR drivers who finished in the back half of the field (20-40) at Daytona, 10 of them are expected to contend for a spot in the playoffs. Of those, three are NASCAR drivers who finished in the top 10 in points last season — Martin Truex Jr. (25th at Daytona), Ryan Blaney (30th) and Alex Bowman (35th).
Those NASCAR drivers drive for top teams and stand a good chance to not only make the playoffs, but possibly contend for the series championship. The NASCAR drivers who suffered the most at Daytona and will be under pressure to make up lost ground are seven drivers who are expected to battle for one of the final 16 playoff spots.
NASCAR drivers in biggest hole after Daytona
Kurt Busch (22nd at Daytona), Aric Almirola (23rd), William Byron (26th), Tyler Reddick (27th), Matt DiBenedetto (33rd), Ryan Newman (38th) and Eric Jones (39th) are all expected to be in a tight battle for one of the last five or six playoff spots. All seven NASCAR drivers are capable of winning a race, but they also figure to be outside the top 10 in points and must run consistently to stay in the hunt.
Here's a look at their fortunes at Daytona and their prospects for the rest of the season:
Kurt Busch — The 2004 champion has made the playoffs eight years in a row, but he doesn't drive for an elite team anymore. His Chip Ganassi Racing team is just good enough to get him in on points, but he likely needs to win for the seventh year in a row to secure a spot.
Aric Almirola — Almirola was one of the biggest losers at Daytona. After winning one of the Daytona Duels, had a car fast to enough to contend in the Daytona 500 before getting taken out in the early 16-car crash. He's a good points racer, making the playoffs three years in a row for Stewart-Haas Racing. But he has just one win during that span. He may need another to secure a playoff spot.
William Byron — No one had worse luck at Daytona. Byron qualified on the front row but got swept into a wreck in the Duels and had to go to a backup car. He was working his way toward the front when he got caught up in a big wreck again in the Daytona 500. Byron won the August race at Daytona last year to make the playoffs, and he may need to do it again.
Tyler Reddick — The two-time Xfinity Series champion finished 19th in points among NASCAR drivers as a rookie. Teammate Austin Dillon made the playoffs last year, and with slight improvement, the talented Reddick has a chance to join him. A 27th-place finish at Daytona was not a good start. He, too, probably needs to win to get in.
Ryan Newman — Once the 43-year-old Newman retires, he may never visit Daytona International Speedway again. A year after surviving a frightening crash on the final lap, Newman was swept into another crash at Daytona and finished 38th. He made the playoffs two years ago for Roush Fenway Racing. To do it again, he may need his first victory in four years.
Matt DiBenedetto — DiBenedetto made an emotional run to the playoffs last year for Wood Brothers Racing, earning another season in the famous Wood Brothers Ford. With Team Penske's support, the team could do it again. DiBenedetto's first career win would help.
Erik Jones — Jones is probably a long shot to make the playoffs with Richard Petty Motorsports, which finished outside the top 20 the past three years with Bubba Wallace. But the talented young Jones has two NASCAR Cup Series victories, and a third would do it. Otherwise, Jones, 24, will have to lift the Petty team to new heights.