Daytona 500 preview: Is the front of the field the least safe place to be?

2019 Daytona 500
Feb. 17, 2:30 p.m. ET

Defending winner: Austin Dillon

Betting favorite: Joey Logano, +725. Logano is the 2015 Daytona 500 champion and made the power move of the weekend by going from fourth to first on the final lap of the second Duel qualifying race Thursday night. He starts fourth on Sunday.

Best value: Erik Jones, +2900. Jones won at Daytona in July to get his first career Cup Series victory. The Toyota Joe Gibbs Racing brigade will be pretty good on Sunday and his odds are by far the longest of any of the four JGR drivers.

Best longshot: Matt DiBenedetto, +7700. DiBenedetto’s odds have come down since Speedweeks began but he’s still worth a $1 play if you’re looking to bet on a longshot or two. He was fourth in his Duel and has run well at Daytona in the past. DiBenedetto probably isn’t going to win on Sunday, but it’d be a nice return if he did.

How safe is it at the front of the field?

There have typically been two approaches to restrictor plate racing. You can (try to) run at the front of the field and stay ahead of the impending big crash whenever it happens or you can run outside of the main pack of cars and let the big wreck happen ahead of you.

They both have their drawbacks. If you’re waiting at the back and the big wreck hasn’t happened before you need to make your way to the front, you’re kind of screwed. You’re either out of time or you’re going to get crashed.

And if you’re at the front of the field hoping to stay ahead of the wreck, well, the wreck is probably going to find you.

“Statistically I think the front used to have a lot better survival numbers,” Chris Buescher said. “It used to be that spots one through six, you had a lot better chance of getting through these races. You don’t right now because the wrecks have happened on the front row and have wiped out more cars than ever.”

A wreck in the middle of stage 2 of the 2018 Daytona 500 collected Chase Elliott, Danica Patrick and others.
A wreck in the middle of stage 2 of the 2018 Daytona 500 collected Chase Elliott, Danica Patrick and others.

The three biggest wrecks in the 2018 Daytona 500 came at the front of the field. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was defending his position at the end of the first stage and nine cars were collected. Midway through stage two, eight cars were taken out after a wreck that started among the cars at the front of the field. And the race went to extra laps because of a crash on the penultimate lap that collected 12 cars who were racing for the win.

We didn’t even mention Aric Almirola crashing off Dillon’s bumper on the final lap in that paragraph either.

“As the race car drivers get better at drafting and understanding it better every time we all become more aggressive,” Logano said. “The cars handle OK, but they’re not the most stable things to drive. You can’t just throw the thing around like it’s an Indycar and expect it to stick. That doesn’t work, but we have to sometimes make moves that quick and sometimes the car doesn’t want to do that.”

The trend continued at Talladega and Daytona later in the year. And in the Clash exhibition race a week ago. Why? The lead cars are more apt to be playing defense than offense and the side draft can make cars wobble from side-to-side.

And according to Brad Keselowski, there are drivers who have found themselves at the front of the field whose defensive skills aren’t the greatest.

“It seems like there are a number of people that get into the top two or three that really just have no clue what they are doing and they pull really bad, juvenile mistake moves and wreck the field,” Keselowski said. “That has been unfortunate but it is what has been happening lately.”

For Keselowski, who didn’t name names, it’s not so much about being at the front of the field but being around drivers in fast cars who have a tendency to make those mistakes.

“It is more about who you are around,” Keselowski said. “There are a handful of drivers capable of running up front and not wrecking the field.”

Blocking anywhere on the track at Daytona comes down to anticipation. You have to be proactive and not reactive to the moves that are happening behind you. If you’re reacting to what’s already happened in your rear-view mirror, you’ve moved too late.

“Just people that throw blocks that don’t understand the runs or what is around them,” Keselowski said when asked to explain what a bad and juvenile mistake was. “They don’t have full situational of spatial awareness but they think they do which is even more dangerous.

“You can block if you know what you are doing but not every move can be blocked. You have a handful of people that have cars good enough to run up front and think that they can block every move and you can’t. It isn’t going to happen. You are going to wreck or wreck everybody else.”

Starting lineup

1. William Byron
2. Alex Bowman
3. Kevin Harvick
4. Joey Logano
5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
6. Clint Bowyer
7. Paul Menard
8. Aric Almirola
9. Matt DiBenedetto
10. Denny Hamlin
11. Martin Truex Jr.
12. Kurt Busch
13. Bubba Wallace
14. Ryan Blaney
15. Chris Buescher
16. Jamie McMurray
17. Jimmie Johnson
18. Chase Elliott
19. Ryan Newman
20. Austin Dillon
21. Ryan Preece
22. Ty Dillon
23. Daniel Suarez
24. David Ragan
25. Parker Kligerman
26. Kyle Larson
27. Landon Cassill
28. Erik Jones
29. Daniel Hemric
30. Brendan Gaughan
31. Kyle Busch
32. Corey LaJoie
33. Matt Tifft
34. Michael McDowell
35. Brad Keselowski
36. Ross Chastain
37. Cody Ware
38. BJ McLeod
39. Tyler Reddick
40. Casey Mears

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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