On the heels of a busy offseason, NASCAR’s very best arrive in Florida this week for the official start to the 2020 season with a tremendous Sunday doubleheader at Daytona International Speedway that includes pole qualifying for the Daytona 500 (12 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90) followed by the always-popular Busch Clash (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – a 75-lap sprint race featuring the series’ biggest names contending for the first non-points paying trophy of the year.
It’s the traditional kickoff to the Feb. 16 season-opening Daytona 500, which, this year, features seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his last full season while welcoming a talented rookie trio – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell – expected to impress from the drop of the green flag.
First up, however, is the traditional all-out, trophies-or-wreckers sprint race, the Busch Clash – a 75-lap race among 18 drivers eager to hoist the first race trophy and send a strong message about their team’s competitive bidding.
This year’s starting grid includes: Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.
Johnson earned his second career Busch Clash victory – and first since 2005 – in last year’s race, a dicey affair that provided all the bold moves fans have come to expect in the opening competition at Daytona. It was the first time the future Hall of Famer had hoisted any trophy since his June 2017 regular season win at Dover, Del. And Johnson definitely had to earn the hardware.
Polesitter Paul Menard led the first 51 laps of the race and with menacing dark clouds hanging over the speedway, all the crews on pit road knew a Florida afternoon rain shower was on the way. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team decided it was time to make a move and the champion dove low on Lap 52 to get around Menard. The two made contact and Menard spun out, collecting many cars in the field.
Johnson motored on and led three more laps before NASCAR called the race because of the weather. Johnson celebrated in Daytona’s famed Victory Lane for the first time since winning a Bluegreen Vacations Duel race from the pole position in 2015.
“Knowing the rain was coming - we could see it coming - and I knew that was probably my lap to make the move,” Johnson said. “I had a great run down the back. I got below him (Menard) before he blocked it, and then he came down a little bit, I think to defend and block.”
Johnson later acknowledged what that win meant and the positive effect it had the following Sunday when he finished ninth in the Daytona 500.
“You know, points races are different, but we’ll take this," Johnson said after winning the Busch Clash.
This weekend, Johnson will be competing against six fellow Cup Series champions, five other Daytona 500 champions and five former Daytona 500 polesitters.
There are also seven former Busch Clash winners entered – Johnson, Hamlin, Harvick, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Logano and Keselowski. The Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski, won back-to-back in 2017-18 and Hamlin – one of two three-time Clash winners (also Harvick) – last won in 2016 when he then went on to win the Daytona 500. He is the last driver to win both races.
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, last won the Busch Clash in 2012 and says he’s eager to get the defense of his title off on the right foot. He’s already got a start at Daytona International Speedway this year, running IMSA’s Rolex 24 race two weeks ago.
“I think, anytime we ever go down to Daytona, whether it’s with a new car or whether it’s with a different rules package or what have you, we always look at the Clash as a race to watch to see exactly what’s going to happen and what characteristics you have in your race car," Busch said. “It’s a learning experience for everybody, whether you’re in the race or whether you’re out of the race. For us, we’re curious to see how it’s going to handle and what it’s going to react like.
“I’m just looking forward to getting back to Daytona to my day job with our M&M’s Camry."
DAYTONA 500 POLE QUALIFYING
There have been two common distinguishing marks of the annual Daytona 500 pole qualifying in recent seasons: Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports.
Chevrolet has won 11 of the last 12 Daytona 500 pole positions and Hendrick drivers have earned the last five – from Jeff Gordon in 2015 to Chase Elliott’s historic back-to-back excellence in 2016-17 to Alex Bowman’s 2018 grab and young talent William Byron’s top work last year.
The Hendrick team would no doubt love to land the season’s most-coveted pole award for seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season. It would be a great way to bookend a championship career considering Johnson won the Daytona 500 pole in his first try, his 2002 rookie season.
In fact, rookie drivers have done very well in qualifying for the Daytona 500 as of late. Danica Patrick (2013), Austin Dillon (2014) and Chase Elliott (2016) all won the pole position in their first tries. That’s half of the rookie pole winners in the race’s storied history.
Johnson is the only driver entered this week to win multiple Daytona 500 pole positions (2002 and 2008). There are only five other former Daytona 500 pole winners in the field this year – Dillon, Elliott, Bowman, Byron and Martin Truex Jr.
The last time a driver won the pole position and the race was 2000 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett. The 20-year gap marks the longest time in Daytona 500 history between pole-winning victories in the big race.