Daytona 500: Weekend Preview

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
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“The Great American Race.” “The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing.” Whatever you call it, the Daytona 500 is the crown jewel of stock car racing, the first and most important event on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule and a mainstay of international motorsports since 1959.

Some of the most iconic names in racing history, from Mario Andretti to A.J. Foyt, have hoisted the Harley J. Earl trophy as Daytona 500 champion. Only 11 drivers have won it more than once, led by Richard Petty’s seven victories. On Sunday, 40 racers will look to add their name to that iconic list by conquering 200 laps of restrictor plate racing on Daytona’s 2.5-mile tri-oval.

If you’re not the stock car racing type, but plan on tuning in for one event all year, obviously this is the one to pick. Here’s everything you need to know about the NASCAR opener:

Setting The Grid

The Daytona 500 is unlike any other race on the NASCAR schedule. Pole qualifying took place last Sunday, with Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron earning the top spot. Thanks to NASCAR’s charter system, guaranteeing a majority of entries a weekly starting spot, Sunday didn’t determine much: it locked in Byron and 2018 polesitter Alex Bowman on the front row, and Tyler Reddick and Casey Mears guaranteed their starting spots in the race by virtue of being the top two non-chartered qualifiers.

Instead, Thursday’s Duels set most of the field. The qualifiers are broken up into two races, with the top 15 finishers in each Duel (excluding Byron and Bowman) earning starting spots in Rows 2-16. The rest of the field is determined by a combination of qualifying speeds and remaining chartered teams. In addition, under the current NASCAR points format, the top 10 finishers in each Duel receive championship points.

Faces in New Places

The NASCAR offseason tends to see tons of driver changes linked to one another, and the 2018-19 break was no exception. For example, when Furniture Row Racing shut down, Martin Truex Jr. moved to Daniel Suarez’s former seat at Joe Gibbs Racing; Suarez filled the seat that Kurt Busch vacated at Stewart-Haas Racing; Busch slots into Jamie McMurray’s former ride at Chip Ganassi Racing; McMurray will retire after this weekend’s race to serve as an analyst for FOX.

Over at Richard Childress Racing, promising rookie Daniel Hemric took over Ryan Newman’s former seat as Newman moved to Roush Fenway Racing. Two more rookies join Hemric this year: Ryan Preece moves up from Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team to replace AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing, while Matt Tifft joins Front Row Motorsports in a third car.

When Kasey Kahne retired, Matt DiBenedetto took his spot at Leavine Family Racing, which will switch to Toyota and align with Gibbs after Furniture Row shut down. To replace DiBenedetto, Go Fas Racing brought in Corey LaJoie, whose Daytona entry features his own face on the hood as part of a new Old Spice sponsorship deal.

The Favorites

Byron, Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, and Chase Elliott were last weekend’s top four qualifiers, and Johnson won last weekend’s Clash, showing that Hendrick Motorsports will be a tough team to beat on Sunday. Hendrick went 1-2-3 at Daytona in 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Ricky Craven, crossing the line under caution in a formation finish.

But five different teams have won at Daytona in the past five years, and Hendrick’s most recent victory came with the now-retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014. Defending Cup champion Joey Logano won for Team Penske in 2015, Denny Hamlin gave Gibbs its first Daytona win in 23 years in 2016, and Busch gave Stewart-Haas its first Daytona win ever two years ago. But last year’s champion was Austin Dillon, who brought the iconic number 3 back to victory lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s only Daytona 500 win in 1998. In a controversial finish, Dillon bumped Aric Almirola out of the way on the race’s final lap to score his second career victory.

The wild card will be a brand new vehicle for Ford. After bidding farewell to the Fusion with Logano’s first title, the Mustang is the newest vehicle in the Cup garage, joining Chevrolet’s shift to the Camaro from 2018. While new bodywork can take time for teams to adjust to it, the Ford teams still have Roush-Yates horsepower under the hood, so don’t expect a power disadvantage.

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