NASCAR is officially back.
After a week filled with pre-season action, the World Center of Racing is ready to host the super bowl of stock-car racing: the 63rd running of the Daytona 500.
Many elements of NASCAR have changed since it was born in 1948, but the 500-mile race around Daytona International Speedway’s high-banks has been a constant since the track was built in 1959. At the time the speedway was built, it was the biggest and fastest track in stock car racing, and is still among the fastest and biggest today.
The first Daytona 500 shortly after construction ended in 1959, and it took three days to officially call a winner after a three-wide photo finish between Johnny Beauchamp, Joe Weatherly and race winner Lee Petty.
In the many years since, racing at Daytona has evolved. The draft became an element of racing, bring cars closer together than ever before and giving birth to what we call “the big one,” a massive wreck of cars that almost always seems to occur in races at Daytona and its sister track, Talladgea.
This Sunday, eight former Daytona 500 winners will try to recapture the glory of winning NASCAR’s biggest race while 32 other competitors will try to add their names to a list of NASCAR’s greats who have claimed victory in the great American race.
So what can fans expect this Sunday at Daytona? For one, a lot of pushing and shoving. After the Bluegreen Vacations Duel races, drivers were saying how their cars were drafting very well and how the draft was helping create big runs, which led to a lot of bump drafting in the qualifying races. Typically, this aggressive shoving and bumping triggers multiple multi-car crashes, which means the best way to stay competitive in the race is to simply not to wreck out.
RACE AND TRACK STATS
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Track Length: 2.5 miles
Race Length: 200 laps/500 miles
Stage 1: Lap 65 (65 laps)
Stage 2: Lap 130 (65 laps)
Final Stage: Lap 200 (70 laps)
Pit Road Speed Limit: 55 mph
Defending Winner: Denny Hamlin
Package: Superspeedway package
First Race: 1959
First Winner: Lee Petty
Most Event Wins: Richard Petty, 7 wins (1964, 1966, 1971, 1973, 1974, 1979, 1981)
FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON
The 2018 Daytona 500 has a fast car with him in Florida this week as he proved in Thursday night’s second Bluegreen Vacations Duel. Dillon spent most of the race in the top 10 and was able to drive his car with ease because it handled so well. Dillon said during a post-race media session that his black no. 3 Chevrolet was among the best few cars he’s ever raced at Daytona. His first Daytona 500 win came in the no. 3 20 years after Dale Earnhardt drove his no. 3 to victory lane in the sport’s biggest race, and what better way to salute one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers by bringing the famous Richard Childress Racing car back to Daytona victory lane 20 years after the death of Earnhardt.
Aric Almirola probably was about half of a lap away from becoming a Daytona 500 champion in 2018, but was wrecked by eventual winner Austin Dillon. Almirola has always run strong at Daytona and Talladega, and he’s captured points-paying wins at both tracks, but the rest of his Daytona statistics don’t reflect how well he runs during the races. In 18 starts at Daytona, Almirola only has 1 win, 2 top-fives and 3 top-10 finishes. He’s also only led 29 laps in those 18 races combined, but anyone who watched his performance in the first Bluegreen Vacations Duel race wouldn’t think so. Almirola led 52 of 60 laps in the first Daytona 500 qualifying race and held off some of the best superspeedway racers NASCAR has to offer, proving that he’ll be a strong competitor in Sunday’s race.
Denny Hamlin has been arguably the best driver in the last decade at Daytona. Hamlin has won three of the last five Daytona 500s, including the last two in a row. He’s also the most recent winner at a superspeedway with his win at Talladega last fall. One of the things that has made Hamlin such a threat at superspeedway races is his ability to control his aggression. He knows when to be conservative and when to be aggressive. He’s fantastic at pushing the issue of getting to the front, and it always helps that he has fast cars. However, his recent successes at Daytona and Talladega may work against him, as drivers may not feel motivated to work with him so they can claim a trophy of their own.
Like Hamlin, Joey Logano is a driver who is able to control his aggression and use it wisely. He’s proved it time and time again, including in his duel on Thursday night. He showed his strength in drafting as well, but it’s been some time since Logano won at Daytona. Logano’s lone points-paying win at the World Center of Racing came in the 2015 Daytona 500. His most recent win at a superspeedway was in 2018 when he won at Talladega. To make matters worse, He’s crashed out of three of the last four superspeedway races, including both Daytona races last year. He’ll be strong on Sunday, but Logano will also need luck on his side to take home another Harley J. Earl trophy.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr.
Bubba Wallace has always performed well at Daytona and Talladega. He was running at the front last August before the last big crash of the race happened and he finished second to Austin Dillon in the 2018 Daytona 500. This year, however, Bubba has teamed up with Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin at a new race team which proved their strength during the duels on Thursday night. While he only led three of the race’s 60 laps, Bubba showed patience, aggression, and speed in practice and the duels, which are all of the things he’ll need to win his first Daytona 500 and his first race in his NASCAR Cup Series career.
The 63rd annual running of the Daytona 500 will air live on Sunday, February 14 at 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox and Motor Racing Network (MRN).
Featured graphic by Joe Passero