Reigning champion Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin all head into the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season hopeful to carry the momentum they ended 2021 with.
While a new season is always accompanied by high anticipation and a plethora of unknowns, it would be no surprise if those four drivers come out of the gates swinging, beginning with the first points-paying race — the Daytona 500.
After a nice warm-up with the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to kick things off, which Championship 4 driver from last season is most likely to break into Victory Lane first in ’22? NASCAR.com’s Sean Montgomery and Chase Wilhelm debate.
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MONTGOMERY: Kyle Larson and the No. 5 crew will pick up the first win of the bunch at Auto Club Speedway in Race 2.
You would be hard-pressed to bet against three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin at the coastal superspeedway in the opener, but this season will favor the underdogs. With only the Championship 4 drivers in debate consideration, odds are the season-opening win will come from someone else.
The premier series’ return to the West Coast track, for the first time since March 1, 2020, leaves an opportunity for another triumphant return to California (Fontana) for the Elk Grove native. In seven starts there, Larson has one win (2017) and a pair of runner-up finishes. Though that stint was with Chip Ganassi Racing, he has undoubtedly been the driver to beat at the intermediates since switching camps.
Larson’s first win last season came at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Race 4. If we have to wait that long this year, it would be a surprise.
WILHELM: While it’s safe to say Kyle Larson is going to win multiple races once again in 2022, I have my eye on a different driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stable.
After a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 last year, Chase Elliott has all the potential to earn his first victory in The Great American Race. The 2020 title winner is actually on a run of three straight finishes of eighth or better at Daytona International Speedway, which includes finishes of second and eighth, respectively, in the last two regular-season finales on the 2.5-mile Florida high banks.
While all drivers will be up against a learning curve of the new car, especially on superspeedways, Elliott is a quick study and has always had strong drafting prowess. Oh, and I’m also well aware I’m betting against three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin in the process. Nevertheless, it could be time for engine No. 9 to break into the win column at Daytona.