Friday February 28th, 2020 10:02PM

Sunday's Busch Clash to kickoff Johnson's final season

By Holly Cain-NASCAR Wire Service
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s time.

After a news-filled off-season and just days following an uplifting NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremony, the NASCAR Cup Series officially takes to the track this weekend at Daytona International Speedway for Sunday’s Busch Clash.

The 75-lap exhibition to kick off the 2020 season is always a thrilling shift into high gear for the sport. And this year’s Busch Clash roster features 18 drivers eager to hoist the first Cup Series trophy of the year. Although it is not a points-paying race, there’s still plenty of pride on the line and a strong championship-ready message to deliver.

To qualify for this special race, a driver had to have won a Busch Pole Award in 2019, be a past Busch Clash champion who ran fulltime in 2019 or be a former Daytona 500 race winner or pole sitter who competed fulltime in 2019. All the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers are eligible as well.

Those that qualified for Sunday’s race as 2019 pole-winners include: Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing), Ryan Blaney (Team Penske), Clint Bowyer (SHR), reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing), William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports), Denny Hamlin (JGR), Kevin Harvick (SHR), Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Joey Logano (Team Penske).

Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports) and Martin Truex, Jr. (JGR) both qualify as former Daytona 500 pole-winners. Veteran Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing) is in the lineup as a former Busch Clash race winner. Erik Jones (JGR) is on the grid as a 2019 Cup Series Playoff driver and veteran Ryan Newman (Roush-Fenway Racing) has earned a start because he is a 2019 Playoff driver and former Daytona 500 winner.

Daniel Suarez (Gaunt Brothers Racing) and Daniel Hemric also qualified by virtue of winning pole positions last year, however Suarez’s team has elected not to participate and Hemric is not competing in the Cup Series this season.

Historically speaking, last year’s winner Jimmie Johnson will have a tall task to earn consecutive wins.

Only four drivers have won the Busch Clash in back-to-back seasons – Neil Bonnett (1983-84), Ken Schrader (1989-90), Tony Stewart (2001-02) and the only active driver to do so, Kevin Harvick in (2009-10).

The Busch brothers scored a sort of “family” back-to-back, with Kyle winning in 2011 and his older brother Kurt answering in 2012.

Three drivers competing this weekend are multi-time Busch Clash champions. In addition to the two-time winner Johnson and three-time winner Harvick, Hamlin has three Clash trophies. In fact, the defending Daytona 500 winner, Hamlin, won his first career Cup Series race in this exhibition event in 2006.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson – who has announced that 2020 will be his final fulltime Cup season – is the defending winner of the Busch Clash, taking the trophy last February for the first time since 2005. It was his first top-10 in this traditional Daytona Speedweeks opener since 2011 (fourth-place).

It was a significant win for Johnson, who hadn’t celebrated in any Victory Lane since his last points-paying victory in June, 2017 at Dover.

“I feel good,” Johnson said after his Busch Clash victory last February. “It’s hard to say what you have in Daytona for these two weeks will really carry into the season and Atlanta, Phoenix, California and all that stuff. So for this week and the success we had today in qualifying and today on track, absolutely, it was a great sign for the week ahead.”

Johnson’s strong showing in the Busch Clash set the tone for a solid Speedweeks. Johnson finished ninth in the Daytona 500 a week later, his fourth top 10 in the sport’s biggest race in the previous seven seasons. He is a two-time Daytona 500 champion winning in 2006 and 2013, when he swept the season’s two Cup races at the iconic track.

The drawing for starting position in the Busch Clash will take place at 6:30 p.m. ET on Saturday in the track’s infield Fanzone.

WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Busch Clash from Daytona International Speedway beginning at 2 pm on 102.9 FM, AM 550 and streaming live on AccessWDUN.

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