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Daytona road course takeaways: Field still chasing Chase Elliott

Christopher Bell passes Joey Logano with two laps remaining at the Daytona Road Course and holds on for his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in 38 starts.

Denny Hamlin feigned disappointment after hearing that the next Cup road course race is three months away.

“Shoot,” he said after his third-place finish Sunday at Daytona.

Although Christopher Bell won, Chase Elliott showed his dominance again. Even after Elliott’s four-race road course winning streak ended, there’s little doubt that the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet remains the best on such circuits.

Elliott continues to succeed on long runs on the road courses. Sunday, he ranked first in the field late in runs. Last August on the Daytona road course, he ranked third in that category behind Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin.

“It’s very clear, every time we come to a road course now, it’s been (Elliott), then one step back is the Gibbs cars, (and it) feels like the next step back has been our car,” Joey Logano said after his runner-up finish.

Hamlin says he sees progress in gaining on Elliott.

“I think I’m catching up,” Hamlin said. “I think I got 20 to 30% there today. I mean, he’s still lightning fast. I mean, honestly, when he got the lead, I beat him maybe a couple laps, but who knows. He’s probably just sitting back one-handing this thing just cruising. Who knows.

“I definitely feel like I gained a little bit today, but I still got some work to do for sure. There’s nothing I could see honestly that was, like, earth shattering, ‘wow, he’s just killing me here.’ It’s a little bit everywhere. It’s just going to take time for me to figure out.”

With the next road course race May 23 at Circuit of the Americas — which will have practice since it is a new track for Cup — is there time to catch Elliott by then?

“I think how I’ll get better is on-track time,” Hamlin said. “I think in general, the more that we run road courses, the tighter the field is going to get. Everyone is going to get better. The gap is going to shrink.”

When the series races at COTA in May, it will be the first of five road course races in a span of 11 points events. After COTA, the schedule will feature road course races June 6 at Sonoma Raceway, July 4 at Road America, Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen and Aug. 15 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Does the playoff picture change?

With first-time series winners in the opening two races for the first time since 1950, could the playoff picture already be changing?

Recent history suggests not necessarily.

The past three seasons there has not been more than 11 different winners by the end of the regular season, leaving five playoff spots via points.

There has never been more than 13 eligible winners by the end of the regular season. That happened in 2014, ’16 and ’17. In 2017, there were 14 winners by the end of the regular season but Joey Logano’s Richmond victory did not count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race — an “encumbered win” as those were called at that time.

Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell, Sunday’s road course winner, are both bound for the playoffs with their victories. That would leave 14 spots remaining.

With six road course races, three superspeedway events and a race on dirt all in the regular season, there are ample opportunities for unexpected winners. That could limit the number of drivers who make the playoffs via points.

Points were already on the mind of Adam Stevens, Bell’s crew chief, entering Sunday’s race. He kept Bell out on older tires during a caution shortly before the end of the first stage. Stevens said he wanted the points and figured about five other cars would stay out. That didn’t happen and Bell fell to 12th by the end of the stage in three laps.

No matter. His win puts him in the playoff picture.

“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” Brad Keselowski said after his fifth-place finish. “We’re very early in the season and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us.

“I think that we’ll be able to go to Richmond and Martinsville and some of those tracks and contend for the win and hopefully bring home wins, but if you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re going to be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”

Select group

After two races, four drivers have scored top 10s in each event. They are: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece.

Hamlin has a pair of top fives. Harvick has finished no worse than sixth this year. McDowell won the Daytona 500 and overcame a flat tire at the start of the race to finish eighth Sunday. Preece was sixth in the Daytona 500 and ninth Sunday for his first career top 10 in Cup on a road course.