The hype for the 62nd Daytona 500 (TV: FOX; 2:30 PM EST) is building with Thursday night’s pair of thrilling 150-mile qualifying races coming on the heels of the speedway announcing a sellout for its 101,000-seat grandstands and the President of the United States being the grand marshal for the race.
Taking center stage will be 40 drivers competing for the Harley J. Earl Trophy, all with different stories of their own.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr: Looking for redemption from the front row
For the third time in his career, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will start from pole position. It’s Stenhouse’s first pole since Talladega in May 2017, a race that saw him win from the pole.
Stenhouse getting a win would not only get him into the Playoffs but it would do much for his career, after being released from Roush-Fenway Racing and now on a one-year deal with JTG-Daugherty Racing.
Sunday will be Stenhouse’s first official drive in the no. 47 Kroger Chevrolet and his pole is a good indication of his Daytona success. He has won the July race and led at least 11 laps in four of the last five Daytona races. Not only that but Stenhouse led 27 of 60 laps in his Duel and proved he’ll be a driver contending for Sunday’s win.
Alex Bowman and Joey Logano: The outside pole sitter and a Duel winner, again
Alex Bowman will start on the outside front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500 for the second year in a row.
Bowman showed strength in his Duel, leading 12 of the first 22 laps and making two successful challenges for the lead in that time, before falling back late in typical fashion for Daytona 500 front row starters who aren’t in immediate contention for a Duel win and don’t want to wreck their car.
Bowman will be a contender in this year’s 500 and so will Joey Logano who will pilot his Duel-winning no. 22 Ford to what could be his second 500 win.
Logano is an aggressive driver and it’s shown in the first two races of Speedweeks, even to where he drew ire from teammate Brad Keselowski (no. 2 Ford).
Logano’s style works, however, as his worst finish in the last six 500s is 11th in 2014 and he’s led 73 laps in the 500 during that time, including 11 laps led in last year’s 500 en route to a fourth place finish. If he can keep his nose clean, Logano will be in contention.
William Byron: A veteran in the making with a champion at the helm
William Byron won the second Duel Thursday night, picking up where he almost left off at Daytona when he finished second in last July’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.
Byron took the lead with three laps to go en route to his first unofficial Cup win that marked the first win for a no. 24 Axalta Chevrolet since Jeff Gordon won the August 2014 Michigan race.
Byron led the second-most laps of any driver (44) in last year’s Daytona 500 and is returning with essentially the same team as last year, including crew chief Chad Knaus, to get the no. 24 car its first points-paying Cup win since the November 2015 Martinsville race.
The 500 will be Byron’s 73rd start and a win on Sunday would make him just the seventh driver to have his first win come in the Daytona 500. It would also fulfill Byron’s tear through the NASCAR ranks and begin what’s expected to be a successful 2020 Cup campaign.
Jimmie Johnson: The swansong start to a vengeance-seeking season
Jimmie Johnson (no. 48 Chevrolet) finished second in his Thursday night Duel and showed strength by making a close run for the win at teammate William Byron.
Johnson will be beginning 2020 on a clean slate with crew chief Cliff Daniels and sponsor Ally Financial each returning to be along for the swansong ride for the seven-time champion where Johnson has almost nothing to lose and everything to win to go out on a high note after two rough seasons.
If Johnson were to win the 500, he’d start the year off with a win; something he hasn’t done in 95 races. He’d also be the first driver to win the 500 in their final full-time season and would tie his mentor Jeff Gordon and Cup champ Dale Jarrett at three 500 wins.
In terms of Johnson’s legacy, a 500 win would be his 84th in his career, putting him into a tie for fourth on the all-time wins list with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. Most importantly, Johnson would also be on the cusp of a record eighth title with a win securing a Playoff berth for him.
Matt Dibenedetto: A fan favorite on the verge of breaking out with a historic team
Matt Dibenedetto led 49 laps in last year’s Daytona 500 driving Leavine Family Racing’s no. 95 Procore Toyota Camry. Although he had fell back with 10 to go, he had assistance coming from Paul Menard that was going to propel him back to the lead until it went wrong, triggering a multi-car crash entering turn 3 that collected them and 19 others.
In an ironic twist, when Menard announced he was stepping away from full-time last September, he also announced his hand-picked successor, Matt Dibenedetto.
Dibenedetto’s breakthrough moment was the Bristol night race where he led the most laps (93) but was passed by Denny Hamlin with just 12 laps to go. Such an impressive underdog performance was met with praise arguably not drawn since the days of Dale Jr.
Now, driving the historic no. 21 red-and-white Ford, Dibenedetto has a good chance to get his first Cup win and to get the Wood Brothers their 100th win in NASCAR’s biggest race, no less. All things considered, the win would be huge for all parties and for NASCAR, as a whole, to start the season with the rise of a new fan favorite converging with NASCAR’s oldest team.
Leavine Family Racing: Looking for Daytona redemption with new driver and stronger alliance
In last year’s Daytona 500, Leavine Family Racing had a breakout performance with their no. 95 Procore Toyota Camry, then-driven by Matt Dibenedetto, leading the most laps (49).
Now with rookie sensation Christopher Bell (no. 95 Toyota) and a beefed-up alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but still the same familiar Procore scheme, LFR will be looking for redemption in the 500.
Bell has looked good throughout Speedweeks, initially qualifying ninth during Sunday qualifying and finishing ninth in his Duel where he looked comfortable in the draft, even despite an error on pit road involving quasi-teammate Martin Truex Jr.
If Bell were to win the 500, he’d be the seventh driver in history to have his first win come in the Daytona 500 and the first driver to ever win in his first Cup start. If there’s any combination that can do, it’s bound to be a talent like Bell with a team that’s achieved success at Daytona like LFR has.
Joe Gibbs Racing: Four drivers, three possible milestones
In last year’s Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones went 1-2-3 in what was an emotional win for a team that was stricken by loss with the death of J.D. Gibbs in the off-season.
The win in the 500 was Hamlin (no. 11 Toyota)’s second and in this year’s race, he’ll be looking for his third 500 win and to be the first driver since Sterling Marlin to win back-to-back Daytona 500s (1994-95).
Seeking his first 500 win in his 16th attempt is Kyle Busch (no. 18 Toyota) who finished second to Hamlin in last year’s 500 after leading 37 laps. If he were to win this year’s 500, he’d be the first driver since 1999 Cup champion Dale Jarrett to back a Cup title up with a Daytona 500 win the following year.
Busch’s other teammates, Erik Jones (no. 20 Toyota) and Martin Truex Jr (no. 19 Toyota), are each looking for their first Daytona 500 win. Recently, Jones has been the closest with a win in this year’s Busch Clash and in the 2018 July race but Truex has been the closest to winning in the 500, coming up short to Hamlin by 0.010 seconds in the 2016 500.
If any of the four JGR drivers were to win the 500, they’d make JGR the first team to win consecutive Daytona 500s in six years when Jimmie Johnson won the 2013 500 and Dale Earnhardt Jr won the 2014 500, each driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
A new aero package: Bigger spoiler and splitter, more HP, what to expect?
This year’s Daytona 500 will see all 40 cars run a bigger spoiler and splitter and a tapered spacer making 550 HP, rather than a restrictor plate that made less HP. It’s the first time since 1987 that the 500 will be run under a non-restrictor plate configuration and so far the package has had good results when used at Daytona and Talladega so far.
From 2018 to 2019, lead changes were up in the Spring race from 25 in 2018 to 38 in 2019 and in the Fall race from 15 in 2018 to 46 in 2019.
At Daytona, the 2019 July race saw an average of 72.8 green flag passes per lap, compared to 36.8 the year before.
As many expected, with higher downforce and more HP, drivers are able to suck-up each other more and get bigger runs on their own which has improved the competition so far in Speedweeks.
Just in the Duels, lead changes were up in the first Duel from two in 2019 to 11 this year and from 4 in 2019 to 8 this year, so we can expect similar things to happen in the 500.
When it gets to the end, drivers will be making aggressive moves with more stability and HP which should lead to a chaotic, hard-fought battle for the Harley J. Earl trophy in this year’s Daytona 500.
TV coverage will be on FOX and radio coverage will be on the Motor Racing Network.
NASCAR Raceday begins on FOX at 1 p.m. EST Sunday and pre-race ceremonies are set to begin at around 2:30 with the green flag set to fall at around 2:46.