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Dustin Off a New Season: 61st Annual Daytona 500

The new season begins on Sunday.

As we embark on a new year of action on the asphalt, it’s a season to reflect back on 10 years of existence.  Not the sport itself, as NASCAR is at the prime age of 61 and is looking more youthful than ever.  Instead, it’s a 10-year anniversary since this writer began putting pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, about the sport.

To imagine where I was that long ago, along with many other writers who have turned out to be some of the best friends and allies I could ever have, is unreal.  There have been amazing moments, but also unfortunate moments.  All of them have made me grow as an individual and as a writer, and even as a photographer in some aspects.

With the 2019 season here, it was also time for a break, and a revive.  This year, the Horsepower Fantasy Racing League is taking a minor hiatus.  What began with a full field of participants a few years back dwindled, either because of new opportunities or just not being able to commit like they could prior years.  Rather than risk having a small field, and possibly having to either adjust the elimination amounts in the Playoffs or risk having to cancel it all together, it was best to take a break, and look for some new blood to join as the season progresses.

But it also is a time to revive, and rejuvenate, because if you notice, my original column from all the way back in 2009 has made a return.

What better way to celebrate 10 years with the sport than honoring the past, with a focus on the future.

Daytona is here, as it is both a new beginning, and also the end of an era in the sport.  When the checkered flag falls, and a new Daytona 500 champion is crowned, it will end 31 years of racing at both Daytona and Talladega with a restrictor plate put underneath the throttle body.  Teams were preparing for this race almost during last year’s Daytona Speedweeks.  NASCAR’s new streamlined rules package, with larger spoilers, a bigger leading splitter edge, and a new tapered spacer are getting used at all races in 2019, except Daytona.

The way drivers have run plate races over the several years has been the leading car having the advantage of pulling the high, low, or middle line to stop momentum.  It’s made for some boring racing, including the Duals on Thursday night.

NASCAR is trying to keep it so every track is the same with rules, minus the aerodynamic ducts for the brakes which can be adjusted based on the tracks that use more brakes.

In a way, some fans are pleased to see the plates come off, but there’s no indication of how these cars will run with the new setup.  That will come later this year at Talladega.  So once Sunday is over, an entirely new era of the sport will begin, an era that has yet to be tested on such a big platform.

The other focus that I’m trying to be aware of is the fact that we are coming off a season where three drivers were the class of the field from start to finish.

Sure, in years past there have been seasons where one driver has outright dominated a season, case in point the most recent being Martin Truex Jr. in 2017.  Go back even longer, look at the dominance of newly enshrined Hall of Fame champion Jeff Gordon, who won 33 races between 1996 and 1998 with a pair of championships mixed in.  But, to have three drivers win over 85 percent of the races in one season in this era is unheard of.

But, Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were the three men that were outright the class of the field for the 2018 season.  All that dominance, but yet the three of them were shut out when it counted the most.

At Homestead, the “Big Three” were all part of the championship battle on the final night of the season.  They finished in the top four at race’s end.  The only trouble was, they finished second, third, and fourth.  Had their final competitor finished fifth or worse, this discussion wouldn’t even be happening.  Busch, Harvick or Truex would be celebrating their second championship.  Instead, the “outsider” was the one out front, and to some was the one who stole the championship away.

Like it or not, Joey Logano is the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion.  That fact cannot be changed, and now the entire field has a focus of taking that title away at the season’s end.

To me, as hard as I want to admit it, when the race mattered the most, Logano was the driver to beat.  He took away any momentum that the “Big Three” had immediately in the third round with his bump-and-run at Martinsville, and that meant everyone else was battling from behind.  Logano may have taken the title from what many felt was the rightful drivers to win the title, but he did what he needed to in order to be the champion.

It’s a new season, a new opportunity, and it’s time to get the green flag in the air on Sunday in the Daytona 500.

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