Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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