DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Take a good look when the green flag falls for the 62nd running of the Daytona 500, because the Great American Race likely will appear quite different in 2021.
Next season will mark the debut of the NextGen car, a radical overhaul of the model that has been raced in NASCAR’s premier series for decades. The potential volatility of an unusually large group of stars in contract years could mean a dramatic reshuffling of the driver lineup for next season. And though next year’s Daytona 500 already has been announced its traditional mid-February slot (Feb. 14, 2021), the races that will follow it (or perhaps occur before) will form what’s expected to be an aggressive shake-up of the Cup schedule.
Those are three overarching topics in NASCAR entering the 2020 season that actually won’t be fully digested until well after the champion has been crowned.
But one thing remains static: The Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the season, and Daytona International Speedway will have anyone’s full attention for roughly three hours today.
Here are five things to watch over the next 500 miles of Cup racing.
Jimmie Johnson’s last ride: Feting the seven-time series champion will be a weekly occurrence during his final full season of an illustrious 19 years in the Cup Series, and Daytona International Speedway will kick off the celebration by putting Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet at the front during warmup laps. A special video tribute and highlight montage will be played, honoring the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s career with accolades from peers and teammates, and there also will be an extended salute during driver introductions.
It’s fitting to heap as much praise on Johnson as possible, considering many in NASCAR believe proper credit was lacking for his accomplishments and during an unprecedented run of five consecutive championship (notably, Johnson will remain overshadowed slightly Sunday by a visit from President Trump).
Of course, the ultimate homage would be in victory lane. It’s been more than two seasons and 95 races since his last victory, but Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner and showed speed in finishing second to teammate William Byron in Thursday’s second qualifying race. Though speedway races haven’t been his forte, if he can avoid being caught in the predictable rash of wrecks, he should have as good of a shot as anyone at earning a memorable win.
Blocking and big crashes: Speaking of wrecks, expect more of the same at the Daytona 500, which has been an annual demolition derby since 2017. Though drivers understand insanely higher closing rates (because of a taller spoiler) greatly have diminished the effectiveness of blocking, it won’t preclude overly optimistic moves that invariably will result in massive pileups (as in Sunday’s Busch Clash).
It’s the Daytona 500, which means every risk can be rationalized no matter how absurd and futile it might seem in retrospect.
Expect the action to be relatively tame (much like the bulk of Thursday’s qualifiers) through the first 160 laps. But over the final 100 miles, the gloves will come off, and many contenders will be left staggering.
And keep an eye on whether any more flareups involve teammates after the contretemps between Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in the Clash.
Manufacturer alliances: Because it should be easier to charge toward the front with these rules, strength in numbers will be less important than a year ago (when Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas cut a secret deal with Hendrick Motorsports’ Chevrolets to thwart the Ford armada). But the automakers have exuded their desire for cooperation among brands more strongly than ever over the past year at Daytona and Talladega, with Chevrolet finally getting its Camaros to work in line with the Camrys and Mustangs.
Those dynamics will change as the laps wind down, but at least through the first two stages, expect drafting partners to be chosen strictly across manufacturer lines.
However, within the last 40 laps, expect to see surges regardless of their brands by the drivers remaining who are most skilled at superspeedway racing (with Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Keselowski and Logano being among the first tier, and Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Kurt Busch being in the conversation after that).
The champ seeks another crown: NASCAR has been at Daytona International Speedway barely a week, but its resident champion has been making headlines here since the start of the year.
From the moment Kyle Busch climbed into a Lexus during a Jan. 3 test for his Rolex 24 debut, he has carried a noticeable spring in his step at the World Center of Racing.
Undoubtedly, he feels the confidence borne of emerging from one of his most frustrating seasons in Cup with a second title, which surely makes his first Daytona 500 win (in his 15th attempt) seem even more attainable.
His record at the 2.5-mile track is spotty – a lone victory in the July 2008 race – but he finished a career-best second in last year’s season opener. A stat buff who is aware of the many stock-car greats who never won here or needed double-digit tries, Busch has all the necessary motivation to marry with the swagger.
First timers and dark horses: This season’s vaunted trio of rookies (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) comprise the best freshman class in Cup since 2006 (Hamlin, Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.), and any of them could pull the biggest Daytona 500 stunner since Trevor Bayne’s 2011 victory.
The same is true for a familiar collection of youth and veterans who have a skillset well-suited for superspeedways. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chris Buescher, Aric Almirola, Ryan Preece and Matt DiBenedetto (now driving for Wood Brothers Racing’s storied No. 21, which has a long history at Daytona and is on the cusp of its 100th victory) don’t get mentioned often as Cup contenders but can’t be overlooked at Daytona.
Michael McDowell, David Ragan and Bubba Wallace are driving for midpack teams but aren’t necessarily long shots in this race.