Daytona 500 Preview
By Brennen McCall, Guest Contributor
It’s that time of year again. A new NASCAR season is upon us and the green flag will fall for the Great American Race. It’s the Super Bowl of stock-car racing. There is no offseason for NASCAR teams as they spend the winter months preparing their cars for the new year. The best equipment is used for Daytona. If there is ever a race to win, it’s the 500.
The usual favorites are back. Denny Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 champ two years over, looking to grab an elusive three-peat at the famous race…..something no driver has done before. Chase Elliott is fresh off his first Cup series championship. He spent the offseason racing everything on wheels by keeping his skills sharp at the Snowball Derby, the Chili Bowl and more recently the Rolex 24 at the Daytona Road Course. Former 500 winner Kevin Harvick is coming off a dominant nine-win season, but fell short at the run to a championship. Ryan Newman returns to the same race that nearly took his life a year ago, bringing with him the same fire and blue-collar attitude that fans are used to. Kyle Busch looks to hit the reset button after a disappointing season that only brought him one victory.
There are also plenty of new faces in new places throughout the field this year. The most new team is undoubtedly the new 23XI (Twenty-three Eleven) Racing, a team co-owned by current star Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan. Their driver is Bubba Wallace. Wallace, the only black driver at NASCAR’s highest level, finally seems to have a top ride after several seasons racing in C-rated equipment. His former seat at Richard Petty Motorsports will be filled by a young Erik Jones, who found himself looking for a new contract and something to prove after being let go by his old team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Christopher Bell looks to begin his sophomore season behind the wheel of Jones’ old ride. Kyle Larson looks for redemption at his new home at Hendrick Motorsports after being suspended from NASCAR competition for saying a racial slur on an iRacing event last year. Monterray, Mexico, native Daniel Suárez lands a ride at the new Trackhouse Racing, a team founded by former driver Justin Marks with help from music icon Pitbull. Journeyman Ross Chastain, famous for smashing watermelons after a victory, finally has his shot at Cup series glory at his new home at Chip Ganassi Racing. And Alex Bowman moves over to fill the seat previously occupied by legend Jimmie Johnson, who retired from NASCAR at the end of last season to pursue an Indycar career.
Some fast and exciting rookies will be sharing the track among the veterans this year. Chase Briscoe begins his first ever Cup race after signing with Stewart-Haas Racing to fill the seat emptied by long-time driver Clint Bowyer. Austin Cindric is coming off his first Xfinity Series championship. The Daytona 500 will the first of several Cup races he’ll enter this year for Team Penske. Young Noah Gragson, known for his on-track aggression, is trying to make the 500 at the low-funded Beard Oil Motorsports. And after several part-time efforts in the Xfinity Series, Anthony Alfredo has finally landed a full-time ride at the mid-field contender of Front Row Motorsports.
With all these stories coming together only one will matter when the checkered flag falls at the end of the Great American Race. To get there first, however, is a tall task even for some of the greatest to ever get behind the wheel. Legends like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart never got to taste Daytona 500 victory. It’s a very difficult race to win and in recent years that difficulty has grown. This race is incredibly competitive. Unlike smaller ovals, Daytona International Speedway’s high banks create higher speeds giving the cars the ability to draft off the cars in front of them to great effect. This creates a style of racing unique to NASCAR. The draft bunches the cars together, forcing them into run at 200mph just feet from one another. This is also why the competition is so high. The draft is so powerful that slower cars can hop right in line with the faster cars and gain an advantage if they so choose. This is the reason virtually anyone has a shot to win.
While drafting at Daytona is necessary if you want to win, you also need to survive if you want to make it to the finish line. Accidents are common in racing, but very few tracks produce as many multi-car pileups as Daytona. If you throw 40 cars under a blanket at 200mph while running just feet from one another, there isn’t anywhere to hide if one driver makes a mistake. The Big One is racing’s biggest heartbreaker. Five, 10, 20+ cars can be taken out with one false move. Countless hours of preparation and millions of dollars can be tossed away in an instant just because one jackoff decided to throw a late block on lap 50.
So, who is going to win the 2021 Daytona 500? There is an argument that can be made for several drivers. However, one driver stands out among the rest. Denny Hamlin is going for his third Daytona 500 in a row and his fourth in six years. Aside from what he’s done in the win column, he’s always found a way to be in the mix on the final lap for Daytona and its sister track Talladega. When combining all races from those two tracks since 2016, in 20 tries Denny Hamlin has amassed four wins and six top-fives with three wins and three top-5s coming in just the last eight races alone. Statistically, he’s the favorite to win on Sunday.
Regardless of who wins this year’s Great American Race it will without a doubt be a competitive and fun beginning to one of the most anticipated NASCAR seasons in recent memory. Cars will flash by off the final corner in a barrage of color and screaming engines as the sport’s biggest stars risk life and limb for the prestige and glory of an elusive Daytona 500 victory.