We now have the first true eye-openers of Speedweeks 2017.
The first shocker was Chase Elliott storming to the win in the first 150 after such a poor effort in the Busch Clash. It also broke up the expected dominance of Penske Racing's Fords and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas; Kyle Busch in particular suffered when the field almost wrecked amid heavy blocking; also waylaid was Paul Menard, who'd quietly stormed into contention. The other Fords also acquitted themselves - Stewart-Haas was expected to be stout, lesser expectation was applied to the Petty-Roush trio but those Fords ran strong as well; it was actually disappointing Aric Almirola and Trevor Bayne finished out of the top five.
But the bigger shocker came even though Denny Hamlin winning at Daytona doesn't come across as a surprise - the surprise was that he stormed past Dale Earnhardt Jr., returning to NASCAR after sitting out half the season recovering from a concussion. Junior grabbed the lead early and then got into a spirited sidedraft fight with Denny Hamlin. After a midrace yellow Ryan Blaney made a hard challenge to Junior; the challenge got very chippy as at one point Blaney faked out Junior and dove to the bottom and inches ahead but got no drafting help. It thus appeared Junior would cruise to another qualifying race win - except Hamlin got the drafting push and stormed to the win just before the white flag.
So with the 500 field now set, some quick takes -
The upsurge in blocking in plate races nearly caused at least one melee in the 150s, contributed to the Hamlin-Keselowski crash in the Busch Clash, and is becoming a problem for NASCAR between stifling passing - the drivers' on-track goal, naturally - and also the potential for crashes beyond the two-car set-to in the Clash. Drivers of course also tried to push-draft; it's worth noting when they could do it with authority there wasn't much if any blocking, so it constitutes the ultimate mixed bag for everyone involved. Even with that there was noticeably more lead changing in the 150s than in the Clash, an encouraging sign for Speedweeks.
The Hendrick, JGR, and Penske fleets grabbed the Thursday gold, but numerous teams acquitted themselves more than respectably - the Petty-Roush alliance showed drafting fight - Aric Almirola in particular curiously commenting before the race about need for more fight on his part - while the RCR Chevrolets may have been the biggest surprise, as very little was expected here yet Austin Dillon pushed Hamlin to the late lead and finished well in his 150 while teammates Newman and Menard largely unnoticed proved they can surge to the front. The Ganassi-SABCO Chevrolets also showed fight, especially Jamie McMurray in spots looking like Donnie Allison in the #1.
The SHR Fords as expected were stout; the biggest surprise has been Danica Patrick, who followed up a 4th in the Clash with 7th in her 150. The return of Clint Bowyer to the front after his miserable lameduck year of 2016 was certainly welcome.
Dark horses were in evidence as well - Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon, former Firecracker 400 and Winston 500 winner David Ragan, the above-mentioned Ryan Blaney, and Ty Dillon mixed it up respectably all night.
Decidedly unimpressive was JGR rookie Daniel Suarez, who'd run second for much of the Clash but looked like a rookie from Jump Street in the 150s.
And so Speedweeks 2017 has truly kicked off.