DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Here at Daytona, the sun is shining, the seagulls are gulling, and the hotels are price gouging. All that means it must time for 64th edition of the “Great American Race,” the Daytona 500, the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing,” run at the “World Center of Racing” and apparently also the world center of nicknames.
Like the actual Super Bowl one week ago, a lot of people who might not watch another NASCAR race all year long tune in to this event. And like the big game, there is always that one person at the viewing party who believes it is their duty to wow the room with their surprising depth of knowledge. Perhaps you are one of those people who will be watching NASCAR’s flagship event for the first time, or just for the first time since last year. Well, instead of having to listen to the know-it-all, why not become the know-it-all? Or at least fake it really well?
What do you need to know before the 500-mile, 150-lap, 200 mph event drops the green flag at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday? Read ahead, and screengrab it all so you can sneakily look down at your phone and dictate these facts to blow your friends’ motorsports minds.
3 storylines to watch
The Next Gen car has arrived
Over seven decades of racing, NASCAR’s Cup Series has used seven different primary styles of race car. The seventh makes its official debut this weekend and it is by far the most dramatic leap from its predecessor, from the electronics in the instrument panel to the way the car is constructed at the race shop.
There is a lot going on technically, including rack-and-pinion steering, independent rear suspension and even a rearview video camera. But what viewers will notice most on the track are the new body styles, which much more closely resemble their Toyota Camry, Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang street counterparts than in years past. For more on the Next Gen cars, how they are made and supply chain issues, read this finely crafted piece penned by a super handsome ESPN senior writer.
NASCAR’s generational shift
Nietzsche said time is a flat circle. But this weekend, it’s a D-shaped oval with 31-degree banking. The history of stock car racing has always been written in chapters, divided by the changing age of its starting grid.
Richard Petty’s last race was Jeff Gordon’s first. Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona in February 2001 and his son Dale Jr. won the next race run at that track, four months later. As the Cup Series rolls into the start of its 74th season, it finds itself cresting with one of those generational cycles. More than half the field for this year’s race will be under the age of 30.
In this sport, that’s super young. The names you likely know — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch — are all dropping hints about retirement, while superteams like Hendrick Motorsports, a place that was always anchored by veterans, are now packed with millennials and Gen Z. “I think it is exciting for the sport when new blood comes in, but it also turns up the intensity,” Busch said Wednesday. He’s 43 and made his Cup debut in 2001 at age 22. “I started as one of the guys applying pressure to the older guys. Now I’m on the other end of that.”
For more on this topic, might we steer you toward yet another deeper piece of reading by that same dashing ESPN reporter?
Kyle Busch finally winning the 500
Speaking of veteran racers, the list of Daytona 500 winners engraved on the massive Harley J. Earl Trophy is a who’s who of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, from Richard Petty’s seven wins to the guys who “only” won it once but had to wait years to do it, like Dale Earnhardt’s emotional 1998 victory coming in his 20th try.
But the list of those who never won their sport’s biggest race is so packed with icons it’s downright scary. Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, all NASCAR Hall of Famers, went 0-for-111 in the 500.
Every year we’d say, “Well, this is it, they’re winning it” and every year something would happen. Labonte once lost the lead because a dry-cleaning bag got sucked up under his Chevy on the backstretch and literally shrink-wrapped his engine. That brings us to Rowdy Busch, who has won 222 races across NASCAR’s three national series and 59 in Cup, but is 0-for-16 in this race. At 36, he likely has more than a few chances remaining, but that’s what those other guys thought, too.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but there’s a lot of guys that have been greats in our sport that did not win that race,” Busch said earlier this week. “Still, I would not like to go down as one of those guys. We’ll work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
By the way, his drought is only the second-longest in the garage. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-17.
3 favorites to watch
Vegas has him listed as the favorite at 9-1 and with good reason. Actually, three good reasons. Hambone has won the 500 three times, and all those wins have come over the last six years, including 2019-20 when he became only the fourth driver to earn back-to-back 500 victories. Never one who lacks for self-confidence, he always carries a little extra swagger in his step at Daytona.
“I look around the garage here and I see five guys that I know, no matter what they’ve done in practice or qualifying, they will be contenders in this race,” he said Wednesday. “And yeah, I am one of those guys.”
The racer returned from his 2020 purgatory to post one of the most impressive seasons of NASCAR’s so-called Modern Era that began in 1972. He won 10 races as well as the NASCAR All-Star Race and earned his first Cup Series title. His Daytona stats are not great, with no wins and more crashes (six) than top-10 finishes (five) and his most memorable moment at this racetrack came in 2013 when his Xfinity Series car got airborne and ripped down the frontstretch fence. But anyone who doubts that Larson can win anywhere at any time hasn’t been watching him over the past 18 months.
After 12 seasons at Penske Racing that produced a championship and 34 wins, Keselowski has moved to Roush Fenway Racing as not just a driver but also new co-owner of the once proud but now struggling team that hasn’t won a race since 2017. The one big win he never earned with Penske was the Daytona 500, but it’s hard to remember a year when he wasn’t considered a contender. Thursday night, he won the first Duel 150-mile qualifier in the No. 6 Ford originally made famous by Mark Martin, while teammate Chris Buescher won the second. Afterward, he was openly emotional talking about his father, legendary short tracker Bob Keselowski, who passed away in December.
The next 3
The 2020 Cup champ has had to take a bit of a back seat to still-new teammate Larson, but Vegas has him listed alongside Larson with the second-best odds of winning the 500 at 10-1. His last three finishes at Daytona have all been top-10 efforts, including last year’s runner-up finish behind Cinderella story Michael McDowell. At 26, he still has plenty of time to match dad Bill’s two Daytona 500 wins. Plus, the Dawsonville, Georgia, native is a huge fan of the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldogs. Between the World Series, CFP championship and former Georgia QB Matt Stafford in the Super Bowl, Peach State karma is in Elliott’s favor.
In seven Daytona 500 tries, Blaney has a pair of runner-up finishes, a trio of top-10s and had led laps in four races, including a race-best 118 turns at the front before finishing seventh in 2018. “I’m not going to lie, it’s nice when people say that I am a race favorite, at any race, but especially here,” Blaney said Wednesday. “But you’ve just got to make it to the end, and anyone can be a favorite. We’ve made it to the end of about half of them. It’s crazy to say, but that’s actually pretty good.” Also, Blaney shaved off his signature offseason burly beard and slashed his head of Fabio-like hair, so he should be much more aerodynamic in the Daytona draft.
Yeah, he wrecked out of his Duel 150 qualifying race Thursday night, and that’s not good, especially when teams are struggling to get backup cars built (reminder: supply chain). But the 2017 Daytona 500 champ always ends up making noise in this race, good or bad. He was contending late the past two years before getting caught up in the inevitable “Big One” wreck but before that he had posted five consecutive 500 finishes of sixth or better.
3 sleepers not to sleep on
It’s weird to label the defending race champion a sleeper, but McDriver is still with Front Row Motorsports and they are still a second-tier team. But McDowell has always been great at Daytona and Talladega, and he will be again this weekend. Plus, it has been awesome to follow him this week. He’s always been one of the happiest people you’ll ever meet, but this is my 27th Speedweeks and I can’t ever remember someone who so visibly relished their role as reigning 500 champ as much as he has.
He nearly won this race in 2018 in his first try, finished second here in August and won the last superspeedway race at Talladega on Oct. 4, 2021. Also, team co-owner Michael Jordan is expected to drop by, and MJ is never bad for someone’s mojo.
I already told you that he won his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday night. Now I’ll tell you that he has quietly finished in the top 10 five times over his last 10 Daytona starts, including a pair of top-five efforts in the Daytona 500.
3 things to blurt out to impress your friends
“Hey look, it’s Floyd Mayweather!”
On Thursday night, Kaz Grala (who is a race car driver and not a Jedi, despite the name) overcame a pit road speeding penalty to impossibly dash his way into the Daytona 500 starting grid at the last moment. It’s a big deal for NASCAR because Grala’s very funky-looking No. 50 Team Money Racing Chevy is co-owned by boxing legend Floyd Mayweather. As Grala walked to his car Thursday night, Mayweather chimed in on Facetime to give his driver, as Grala described it, “A pep talk like I’ve never had in my life.” Now Mayweather is expected to be in the pits Sunday afternoon.
“Did you know these pit crews are full of former college football players, who are scouted, recruited and go through a combine like the NFL?”
It’s true. Back in the day, the men who went over the wall to pit the cars were mechanics from the shop and most were, to be kind, out of shape. But today, most of the people you’ll see flinging their bodies in front of those machines are former college football players, having played for everyone from Nick Saban to Frank Beamer. For more on that, you should listen to this week’s ESPN College Football Podcast, when I chatted with Hendrick Motorsports football coach-turned-pit crew coach Jon Carvin.
“Have you noticed those new wheels and numbers?”
Speaking of pit stops, as they are happening be sure to keep an eye on the tire changers, the guys with the air guns who yank the old Goodyear Eagles off and bolt new rubber on. That entire process has changed. Gone are the “whir-whir-whir-whir-whir” of five lugnuts. They’ve been replaced by one giant center bolt that better matches the Next Gen car’s new wider (and much cooler looking) aluminum wheels. The already-fast pit stop speeds are expected to drop dramatically.
But what will likely catch your eye quickest are the car numbers on the door, which aren’t really on the door anymore. They’ve been moved from the center of the side panels all the way up to the area next to the front tires. Old school NASCAR traditionalists aren’t super happy about that, but sponsors, who now have much more room for their logos, are.