It’s the best Sunday of the year. It’s Daytona Day.
The green flag is set to drop on the 59th annual Great American Race. With so much uncertainty and rule changes within NASCAR this offseason, both the drivers and the fans seem to be ready to get the attention back onto the track. There are so many story lines this year: Dale Jr’s return to racing, Denny going for back-to-back 500’s, Michael Waltrip’s final race… There’s so much to talk about.
-Handling wasn’t a big issue during the Duels, but that’s because the races were at night. It’ll be completely different tomorrow, with the sun shining, heating up the racetrack. It’ll be slick and there will be less grip. Handling will definitely be an issue.
-This, of course, will be the first Cup race with the new stage points system. We already saw in the Trucks and Xfinity races that guys were eager to battle it out for stage points. I’m interested to see how aggressive the Cup guys are for those stage points given that it’s the biggest race of the year. It’s a whole different story being risky for stage points at Daytona compared to any other track.
-Speaking of risking for stage points. Don’t expect a huge crash-fest like we saw in the Xfinity race. These Cup guys are obviously more experienced than those younger drivers, so I’m sure they’ll be a little more careful in the early going.
-Michael Waltrip’s 30th and final try at the Daytona 500. Can ole Mikey find a way to sneak up front and steal one last win?
-There will be some strong cars coming from the back to the front at the drop of the green flag. Guys like Kyle Busch, Daniel Suarez and Kasey Kahne will be back there, eager to get to the lead.
These drivers will start at the rear of the field after going to back-up cars: Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Paul Menard, Cris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger, and Martin Truex Jr.
-The two Hendrick cars on the front row, Chase Elliott and Dale Jr, looked bad fast in qualifying and the Duels. Excited to see Dale Jr. back behind the wheel, I expect to see the 88 near the front for most of the day. This race will also be a big stepping stone for Chase Elliott. The 24 is definitely quick, we’ll see if young Chase can avoid trouble and stay near the front with his teammate. We’ll also see if those Hendrick cars have figured out their daytime handling issues.
-Speaking of really fast cars, the 11 of Denny Hamlin has to be the favorite to win. Denny came from the back of the field after a penalty on Thursday and passed Dale Jr. coming to the white flag to win the Duel. The Gibbs cars have all looked fast together. From my view, only the 11 seems to really be able to work by himself to move to the front. We’ll see if that’s the case on Sunday.
-Needless to say this Daytona 500 will be especially pivotal for NASCAR. Given the current uncertainty surrounding the sport, a good or bad day tomorrow could possibly make or break public perception. NASCAR needs a good day. Thankfully, the weather looks to be dry and perfect. It will all be down to the drivers and teams on the track to put forth a good product.
Prediction: 11 Denny Hamlin – I know this isn’t very bold. I’m sorry. But I think you’d be absolutely crazy to bet against Hamlin right now. The car is bad fast, and it seems like everything is just going right for the 11 right now. I think the experience of winning the race last year will help Hamlin go back-to-back at Daytona.
Darkhorse: 14 Clint Bowyer – Clint is a tremendous restrictor plate driver. We’ve seen it in the past. Now he’s back in a good car. The 14 looked stout in the Duels, and the Fords seem to really have things figured out. He’s my upset pick.
Keep an eye on: Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Daniel Suarez, Michael Waltrip, David Ragan.