A week of pomp and circumstance is nearly over in Daytona Beach. On the eve of NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, Cup cars roar around the historic 2.5-mile superspeedway in the final practice session of the week — known as Happy Hour — looking for that last little bit of speed. Or handling. Or integrity. Or answers of some sort.
Denny Hamlin has been the week’s big winner thus far, posting wins in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition last Saturday and his qualifying Duel 150 on Thursday. Amongst those in the garage, the performance of Hamlin’s No. 11 team — and his Joe Gibbs Racing outfit as a whole — has managed to unseat another popular storyline: The return of Richard Childress’ No. 3 car.
Austin Dillon cornered the publicity market last Sunday when he won the pole while campaigning the number made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt after a 13-year hiatus.
Meanwhile, some of NASCAR’s traditional heavy-hitters have bent more sheet metal than collected hardware during Speedweeks.
Defending series and Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson has destroyed two cars, one in the Sprint Unlimited, the other in a Duel 150. Johnson’s chief rival in 2013, Matt Kenseth, has been involved in two wrecks of his own, though he rebounded for a Duel win on Thursday. Others, like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, have shown flashes of speed but have little to show for it thus far.
Last year’s Speedweeks sweatheart, Danica Patrick, has been far from invisible, having weathered a storm that arose when Richard Petty made pointed observations about her stock-car credibility. However, the 2013 Daytona 500 pole winner’s 13th-place run in the 25-car Duel field and crash in the Unlimited were mundane showings, to say the least.
With that in mind, it’s well past time to seriously examine which drivers have a realistic shot at winning stock car racing’s most celebrated race. When the green flag flies at 1:30 pm EST on Sunday, the media-run of the week prior, the exhibitions and qualifiers, will fall prey to the reality of performance on race day.
The aforementioned Hamlin is undefeated since last season’s penultimate race, having won the season finale in Homestead, Fla., and his two races this week.
Though his qualifying speed on Sunday was only 22nd fastest, his JGR team has found single-car speed since and the No. 11 Toyota seems to do whatever its driver commands in the pack. In 35 years, no driver has pulled the Daytona trifecta — winning the Unlimited, a Duel and the 500 — in the same year, though 13 have won the two prelims.
“I think the biggest challenge we'll have is keeping the reins back for 400 miles, 450 miles,” Hamlin said of the difficulty in sweeping Speedweeks. “(The Daytona 500 is) a much longer race. Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it's hard not to just want to go out there (and) show that you're still on top and still the best right on lap one.
“I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.”
Thus far, when the reins have been released it’s been Hamlin riding the fastest horse.
A two-time Daytona 500 champion, Kenseth is as stealthy-strong as any plate racer on the circuit. Yes, he’s torn up some race cars this week, but the lessons learned may have only made him better. A masterful win in Thursday’s second Duel wasn’t proof of that, but it was sweet redemption.
“Honestly, I was kind of embarrassed to walk in the garage,” said Kenseth of the two wrecks where he’d been at ground zero. “I feel like they're looking at you cross-eyed when you're walking by.
“To get the car in the front (in the Duel) and keep it there, win that thing, certainly builds confidence.”
Even more encouraging for Kenseth and teammate Hamlin is that as good as they’ve been, the duo has yet to truly work with one another in race conditions.
Kevin Harvick can identify with Denny Hamlin. Last season, it was Harvick who entered Sunday with an unblemished Speedweeks record. His hopes for a second 500 win wasn’t to be, though, as his Richard Childress Racing Chevy — one very similar to the Chevy Austin Dillon will drive this year — was swept up in an accident not of his making.
Starting anew at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, he’s shown strength throughout the week, running second by a nose to Kenseth in the first Duel. Crew chief Rodney Childers says the team is ready.
“I feel like we’re good to go,” said Childers following Happy Hour. “Kevin’s really happy with the car. Didn’t have any vibrations, tire wear has been good.
“It’s a new group of guys. We have to do our jobs, not make mistakes and we should be good.”
Keselowski typically doesn’t make this list. His career-best, fourth-place run in the Daytona 500 boosted the 2012 series champion’s average finish at the track to 22.1. However, Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford has shown muscle in the pack throughout the week.
Second to Hamlin in the Unlimited, another showdown between the two was shaping up in the second Duel when a pit road speeding penalty and subsequent flat tire spoiled a promising run.
“I have the best (Cup) car I’ve ever had down here,” Keselowski quipped following a runner-up finish in the Nationwide Series race.
If the car matches the confidence, that average finish could continue its positive trend.
Looking for a darkhorse? McMurray, in a back-up car after the big Duel wreck, fits the bill. Third on the board in final practice, McMurray’s Chip Ganassi Racing team ran 27 laps on Saturday.
“The car has been running better today,” crew chief Keith Rodden said. “We had to get the back up out and we didn’t get much time on the track yesterday. So today we ran in a small pack. It sucked up good (in the draft) and we ran by ourselves to try a few things just for raw speed and Jamie is pretty happy.”
If Rodden may have questions about the car, but there are none surrounding the driver. Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And as McMurray showed in the 2010 Daytona 500, the annual unexpected contender sometimes actually goes to Victory Lane.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro