Change is in the air as the season kicks off with the 63rd Great American Race
The theme of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season is new heading into the Daytona 500: new drivers, new teams, new schedule, new numbers. We also have a new writer, Frontstretch.com's Zach Sturniolo, to preview the latest installment of the "Great American Race."
Thankfully, in the midst of major change in NASCAR, one thing remains the same: the action returns Sunday with the 63rd annual Daytona 500.
The always-short offseason felt as if it dragged through the winter. Until this week's exhibition Busch Clash, NASCAR hasn't been on track since November. Now, NASCAR has a new champion in the form of Chase Elliott; new teams in 23XI Racing — co-owned by yes, that Michael Jordan — and Trackhouse Racing — co-owned by, wait really? Yes, Pitbull; and a schedule featuring seven road courses, four of which have never hosted a Cup race previously.
It will take some time to determine how good any of those additions will be to the sport. What we know now? The excitement around the sport is reaching a fever pitch as the 2021 season opener draws nearer.
Racing throughout Speedweeks has been exceptional. The Clash ran on the Daytona International Speedway road course for the first time Tuesday and put on a thrilling show that ended with a last-lap battle, crash and pass for the win. Thursday night featured a thrilling pair of Bluegreen Vacations Duels, the qualifying races that officially set the starting lineup for Sunday's race.
Alex Bowman and William Byron stormed to the front row of the Daytona 500 in single-car qualifying on Wednesday night, but both of their Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets suffered issues in their respective qualifying races. Bowman's motor malfunctioned multiple times, and Byron was collected in a multi-car crash late in his duel. Bowman's No. 48 team has decided to wait until Saturday's practice sessions to determine whether to change engines, which would relegate the Ally Chevrolet to the rear of the starting grid on Sunday. Byron will have no choice but to give up his starting spot, as the No. 24 team had to roll out a backup car.
Also coming from the rear in backup cars will be 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski, rookie Chase Briscoe, 2020 Rookie of the Year Cole Custer, Daytona 500 rookie Kaz Grala, and Chip Ganassi's newest driver Ross Chastain.
Grala was one of eight open cars vying for the final four spots available for the Great American Race. He, Ryan Preece, David Ragan and Austin Cindric locked their way into the big show, while Noah Gragson, Garrett Smithley, Timmy Hill and Ty Dillon were sent packing.
63rd Daytona 500
Date: Sunday, Feb. 14
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Bubba Wallace
Remember that new team, 23XI Racing, I mentioned earlier? The one co-owned by Michael Jordan? Their other co-owner is three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who rolls off the starting grid 25th Sunday in search of an unprecedented third consecutive 500 triumph.
The story, though, is the team's new driver, Bubba Wallace, who enters the seat after three seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports.
Wallace was fastest in Wednesday's lone practice session, in which he drafted with his Toyota allies from Joe Gibbs Racing, including team co-owner Hamlin. Practice at superspeedways rarely holds any significance, and that is still likely the case.
The DoorDash No. 23 Toyota, however, looked extremely sporty in Thursday night's duel, dicing through traffic, leading three laps and maneuvering through the field from back to front multiple times. Wallace stormed to the lead past Martin Truex Jr. entering Turn 3 on the final lap of his duel but got too much an advantage exiting Turn 4, allowing Austin Dillon to chase down Wallace, cut from top to bottom and steal the victory.
"A good debut, but nothing to be really happy about for myself," Wallace said. "It's okay for drivers to be hard on themselves. That's how we motivate ourselves to go out and do better. Hats off to my guys — the 23XI team — for building me a great DoorDash Toyota Camry. I tried to do all I could to help (Martin) Truex there, get Toyota a win. I appreciate Kyle (Busch) for cutting me a lot of breaks. I know I've got a lot to learn here, but all in all, it was a good night, but I've got some learning to do."
Wallace's performance showed that not only does his car have speed, but it handles well and the driver knows how to wheel it in traffic. If Wallace can replicate that speed and balance it with patience on Sunday, Wallace has a legitimate chance to earn his first victory in the NASCAR Cup Series on the sport's biggest stage.
Who's at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Speaking of Hamlin, he'll have his work cut out for him on Sunday as he chases history.
The No. 11 FedEx Toyota ran out of fuel on the final lap of its duel, relegating Hamlin to a 13th-place finish in Duel No. 1 and a 25th-place starting spot on Sunday's grid.
As with most superspeedway races, where you start the race doesn't really matter. The pack is sure to be three-wide within the first two laps, and drivers often either choose to find their ways up through the field or lag behind to avoid getting caught in the mass calamity known as the Big One.
Hamlin tends to follow the strategy of the former, eager to get out front and lead laps. No one recently has had more success on superspeedways than Hamlin. In his last six combined starts at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin has only finished outside the top four once, a 26th-place finish in the summer race at Daytona in 2018. To be so strong at tracks where racing is dangerously unpredictable is an incredible feat, but he will have his work cut out for him Sunday afternoon.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps fielded questions from media members on Friday afternoon ahead of Sunday's season opener, touching on a number of topics like fan reaction to social stances as well as thoughts on the charter system.
Over at Joe Gibbs Racing, Martin Truex Jr. signed a contract extension on Wednesday, linking him to the No. 19 car through at least 2022 as terms of the deal were not released.
Gray Gaulding also is jumping back into full-time Xfinity Series racing this year with Jimmy Means Racing, driving the team's No. 52 car with funding help from Panini America.
NASCAR by the Numbers
This year marks 20 years since NASCAR was changed forever when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Safety and innovation have remained at the forefront of stock-car racing ever since that tragic February Sunday. Because of the changes made, such as making HANS devices mandatory, SAFER barriers covering what were previously concrete walls, and sturdier yet more forgiving cars, countless drivers' lives have been saved, among those Ryan Newman, Michael McDowell and Austin Dillon.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Superspeedway races are always the most difficult races to select fantasy drivers. The threat of the looming multi-car crash known as the "Big One" is bound to take out anyone at any time.
That said, streaks still exist — and Denny Hamlin's hot streak at superspeedways is way too hot to ignore. At Daytona alone, Hamlin has garnered four top-three finishes in the past six races, including wins in each of the last two Daytona 500s.
Ryan Blaney should also be on your radar. Blaney has two wins at Talladega Superspeedway in the past two years and is a constant threat to win the Daytona 500. Blaney finished runner-up to Hamlin one year ago and led 113 laps in the 2018 edition of the season opener.
Despite his terrifying, death-defying crash in this race 12 months ago, Ryan Newman has been exceptional at superspeedways over the past two seasons. Newman led entering the tri-oval last year as the checkered flag flew, just before contact from Blaney sent Newman spinning, crashing and flipping down the Daytona frontstretch.
In his last seven Daytona starts, Newman has two fifth-place finishes and three other top 10s. He's been racing these tracks since 2002 and seems to only be getting better with age.
Matt DiBenedetto is another driver to consider here. He's still looking for his first career victory, but has had some solid runs in the Daytona 500, perhaps most memorably in the 2019 Daytona 500 when he was caught up in the Big One after leading a race-high 49 laps that day.
This is the perfect time to consider a one-off driver, in this case David Ragan.
Ragan retired from full-time Cup competition following the 2019 season but returned for the 2020 Daytona 500 and earned a fourth-place finish. Ragan's best career runs have come on the massive superspeedways, earning wins at Daytona (2008) and Talladega (2013).
Watch out as well for debut driver Austin Cindric. The 2020 Xfinity Series champion locked his way into the Daytona 500 for his Cup Series debut and is driving for powerhouse Team Penske. His Penske teammates — Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano — are three of the best superspeedway drivers in the field. Couple that with the strong organization Ford deploys in the draft, and Cindric may be a nice dark horse pick.
What Vegas Thinks
All that talk of Denny Hamlin earlier means you should be surprised that Vegas believes he's the favorite entering Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 11 car is listed at 8/1 odds, while Chase Elliott, the defending series champion, is one of three drivers listed at 10/1 odds. The other drivers at 10/1? Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.
What I Think
Yes, I've sat here and praised Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney. But when it's all said and done, I think someone new will be celebrating a Daytona 500 victory — Kyle Busch.
The two-time series champion has yet to scratch this crown jewel event off his bucket list and only has two wins at Daytona, both in the less prestigious summer race.
Busch seems motivated after a crew-chief swap paired him with all new personnel and already has a victory this year with new crew chief Ben Beshore thanks to a win Tuesday in the Clash.
I think this is the year Busch claims his fourth crown jewel victory.