1. Joe Gibbs Racing easily the early favorites
The sabre-rattling from the Joe Gibbs Racing camp early in Daytona Speedweeks has been impossible to avoid. Simply put: they’ve won everything, save for the Daytona 500 pole in single-lap qualifying.
Denny Hamlin has beamed with confidence that apparently hasn’t let up since he won the 2013 season finale last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He’s been perfect, dominating every segment of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and waltzing to the win of his Thursday qualifying race. Naturally, teammate Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag in the other one.
JGR didn’t find victory lane in the four points-paying restrictor-plate races last season, but it did put on a spectacular show for the first 150 laps of last year’s 500. All told the team led 119 of 200 laps before a plague of engine failures for Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch dropped them to the garage. Hamlin settled for 14th.
The speed display in racing conditions for the team so far has shown that it’s ready for a similar 500 output — though hopefully with a better finish.
Should the JGR team manage to put a driver across the finish line first, it would also mark the first-ever win for Toyota in the sport’s crown jewel event.
2. Patience in passing key to Daytona’s start
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 always gets goofy. But 2014 may be one of the crazier starting lineups in recent history with so many race favorites loaded in the back half of the field either due to crashes, engine changes or just poor runs in the qualifying races.
Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart all are scheduled to start 30th or worse. And if you’re the extra-optimistic type, last year’s eighth-place finisher, Danica Patrick, joins that group, too.
How that group handles being at the back for the start will play a big role in how the race finishes. Track position, according to the early competitive events at Daytona, seems a bit easier to gain on-track this year than last. But such a charge requires calculated risks through a field of drivers with inexperience and general nerves of starting the Daytona 500.
Watching how those drivers move through the field and in to position will be a fascinating storyline early on.
3. Explaining the sport’s newest popular phrase
If you’ve watched any racing at Daytona so far, you’ve heard it. You’ll undoubtedly hear it during Sunday’s 500. It’s the new phrase that every driver and team can’t stop mentioning at Daytona related to restrictor plate racing.
But what exactly is side drafting? According to Kevin Harvick, it’s the best way for a challenging car to both slow down a car under threat and to keep the challenger’s momentum from stalling out when attempting a pass. Basically, it’s an equalizer.
“It’s like putting the brakes on, exactly like putting the brakes on,” Harvick said of side drafting when another driver tries the maneuver.
“When you go to go by a car, basically the front air off the car that you are passing packs up against your rear spoiler and just slows the car down,” Harvick said.
To avoid that, drivers swing within inches of the side of the car they are passing hoping to force the wake of air up and over both cars, rather than primarily to their own spoiler. As the cars pull alongside, the moved air from both increases the drag of each car. With the help of a draft from behind or just simply stronger momentum, a pass can be made.
It’s certainly no exact science, but side drafting is definitely a factor in the current restrictor plate configuration. It may just play a role in the final sprint for the Harley J. Earl trophy.
4. Weather again a factor at Daytona
Just like it was a year ago for the Great American Race, forecasters are worried rain could impact the sport’s grand season opener. Just over 24 hours before the green flag, the National Weather Service predicted a warm, mostly cloudy day with temperatures near 80 degrees. The day-long chance of precipitation was 30 percent.
What effect could that have on drivers in Sunday’s race? Don’t expect much of an issue in the mental department — most drivers have been through rain delays enough times to not let the often halting conditions change their preparation. The rain could, however, affect how many teams plot out gaining track position throughout the day.
If blips show up on the radar and the race is nearing or past the halfway point, crew chiefs might be compelled to gamble with alternate pit stops. The aggression will also carry over the team radio and into the driver’s head — potentially producing more on-track aggression.
Of course, the forecast could prove irrelevant. Rain drops could miss the 2.5-mile superspeedway throughout the afternoon and everything could go off without a hitch. If that happens, expect handling to come in to play more than normal thanks to the air temperature that is expected to be higher than many previous 500s.
5. Will Hendrick Motorsports’ quiet Speedweeks last?
Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon ran — officially, at least — second in each of their qualifying races Thursday night. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 14 laps in his and Jimmie Johnson tore up his second Chevrolet SS in six days when he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the second Budweiser Duel and triggered a massive crash.
It’s not that Hendrick Motorsports has been invisible during this edition of Daytona Speedweeks. But the team certainly hasn’t been top of mind as Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas have won every event. Will that last? Signs after the qualifying races indicate the team may not have shown its full hand quite yet.
On his qualifying race cool-down lap, Earnhardt shot a quick message of confidence to crew chief Steve Letarte over the team’s radio.
“That’s a lot of race car,” Earnhardt said.
Gordon, too, seemed to beam knowing his team didn’t stand as the target of the garage area.
“I’m really happy with our race car. I think we snuck in there with a quiet, under the radar, very fast car that's capable of winning this race,” Gordon said Thursday. “I like it that way.”
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller