The 2020 Daytona 500 viewer’s guide: Five things to watch over 500 miles

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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.

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson smiles during Daytona 500 Media Day (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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).


(Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge to debut Monday

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Reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the headliners in the NASCAR America presents the NBC eSports Short Track Challenge.

The week-long event begins at 7 p.m. ET on Monday on NBCSN.

From Monday-Wednesday, six different drivers will compete in two timed races in Cup Series cars at an iconic track at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The top two finishers from each night will advance to the championship race at the virtual Martinsville Speedway on NBCSN.

Monday night’s races will be at a virtual Rockingham Speedway

Tuesday night’s races will be at a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

Wednesday night’s races will be at a virtual Myrtle Beach Speedway.

Thursday night’s championship race will be at a virtual Martinsville Speedway.

Here is the driver lineup for each night:

Monday at Rockingham Speedway: Kyle Busch, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Parker Kligerman, Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace.

Tuesday at Lucas Oil Raceway: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Wednesday at Myrtle Beach Speedway: Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece and Myatt Snider.

“We’re proud to continue our successful collaboration with iRacing and NASCAR, which began last year, to produce the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge,” said Jeff Behnke, vice president, production, NASCAR on NBC and NBCSN. “Thanks to all the drivers from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series for joining in what should be four consecutive nights of entertainment and fun for all the great race fans and viewers.”

“Of all of the events we’ve been putting together for real-world pros, the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge should be one of the most fun,” said Steve Myers, iRacing executive producer. “So many of the top drivers in NASCAR have honed their skills on both local short tracks and iRacing, and combining the two for a virtual week-long showdown should deliver plenty of excitement. We can’t wait to see who takes the checkered flag and bragging rights!”

This marks the latest collaboration between NBC Sports and iRacing, which began in 2019 when NBC Sports telecast the first-ever eNASCAR live event on television. NBC Sports and iRacing teamed up to present the 2019 eNASCAR PEAK Antifreeze iRacing Championship in a two-hour event live on NBCSN last October. Earlier this year, it was announced that six races of the 2020 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series Playoffs will air live on NBCSN later this fall.

NBC Sports NASCAR commentators Rick Allen and Steve Letarte will call the action, including interviews with drivers during the races. Jeff Burton and Marty Snider will host the NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge via Zoom.

April 2 in NASCAR history: Dale Jr. gets first Cup win in Texas

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One day late in matching his father’s own achievement 21 years earlier, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began etching his name in the history of the Cup Series on April 2, 2000 with his first career win.

The victory came at Texas Motor Speedway, the same track the third-generation driver earned his first Xfinity Series win at two years earlier.

Earnhardt led 106 of 334 laps and beat Jeff Burton to score the victory in just his 12th career start, four races sooner than his father’s first win in 1979. The victory also was the first for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the Cup Series.

“I’ll tell you what, that was the hardest race I’ve ever drove,” Earnhardt told CBS in Victory Lane. “Had the flu all day long, all week long, felt pretty good. Once the race started, we had a good race car and I was pretty happy.”

Earnhardt’s victory was the last time a Cup Series driver earned their first career win at Texas Motor Speedway.

Also on this date:

1967: Driving for the Wood Brothers, Cale Yarborough led 301 of 334 laps at Atlanta to earn his second Cup win and his first on a speedway.

1978: Darrell Waltrip beat John Utsman (relief driver for Benny Parsons) by one lap to earn his first of a record 12 career Cup wins at Bristol Motor Speedway.

1989: Harry Gant ended a 90-race winless streak with a dominant win at Darlington. He led 171 of the last 180 laps to beat Davey Allison and Geoff Bodine. The race was plagued by a 19-lap caution at one point in order to correct a scoring error that gave Gant a one-lap lead on the field.

1995: Jeff Gordon earns his first of four consecutive wins in the Food City 500 at Bristol. It was his third win in the first six races of the season, as Gordon would go on to claim his first Cup Series championship.

Kevin Harvick, Tony Kanaan discuss IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader

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Over a 22-year IndyCar career featuring its share of adversity, Tony Kanaan has learned to embrace trying to find the positives in a negative situation.

He believes NASCAR and IndyCar will find a tiny silver lining from the novel coronavirus pandemic. The series will race on the same day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course in a July 4 doubleheader, which he believes sends a message of unity he’d like to see from the world during this dark period.

“It’s time to send that message (of unity),” Kanaan told “Happy Hours” hosts Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum in a Wednesday afternoon interview on SiriusXM’s NASCAR Channel. “If we don’t come out of this situation as better people, globally, in every way, shape or form … it’s just being kind to people. Hopefully, we’ll be sending the right messages, doing radio shows together, doing live on Instagram together, doing races together.”

Click here to read the entire story on NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk page.

How NASCAR and racing community are helping in COVID-19 fight

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Given the emphasis on safety in racing, NASCAR and several other motorsports entities are increasingly pivoting to focus on safety in other areas to help out during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The biggest emphasis is on personal protective equipment for health care workers as well as things such as respirators for those infected with coronavirus.

According to a report by The Associated Press, here are what several groups across NASCAR and other motorsports series are doing:

* NASCAR’s Research and Technology Center in Concord, North Carolina has shifted from building parts and working on the Next Gen car to producing face shields.

According to the AP report, NASCAR has a team of eight engineers volunteering their time to keep five 3D printers operating nearly 18 hours per day to produce protective face shields for health care workers. The largest printer is capable of producing three shields every 2 ½ hours.

“That’s the one we try to keep running almost nonstop,” Eric Jacuzzi, senior director of NASCAR’s aerodynamics and vehicle performance, told the AP. “You are sitting around watching the news and you think, ‘We just put this big, beautiful new machine in, let’s see what we can do and use it for something good.’”

NASCAR is donating all shields it produces to health care facilities and workers. It is also working with North Carolina State University as consultants to help hospitals with their own 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment, according to the AP report.

* Ford is embarking this week on a project to build as many as 50,000 ventilators in the next 100 days, according to the AP. The company has also lent a team of engineers and is providing facilities and equipment to help 3M build respirators.

Todd Hoevener, Ford Director of Technology, Strategy and Planning, told SiriusXM NASCAR on the “Happy Hours” program Wednesday afternoon, “This week we are ramping up to be able to ship one million (face shields) by the end of the week.”

* Chevrolet’s parent company, General Motors, is working with Ventic Life Systems to produce more than 50,000 face masks daily, as well as is ramping up production to build 10,000 ventilators per month, according to the AP.

* Toyota is also producing face shields and working to manufacturer ventilators, as well, according to the AP.

* NASCAR Cup driver Brad Keselowski’s company, Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, is using 3D printers and CNC machines to build face shields.

* Roush Fenway Racing has donated 1.5 cases of N95 masks to Lake Norman Regional Medical Center and donated shields and safety glasses elsewhere. The team told the AP it is producing aerosol boxes that “protect medical professionals as they treat COVID-19 patients.” In addition, parent company Roush Industries is working on developing other personal protective equipment.

* Hendrick Motorsports has redirected some of its manufacturing resources to produce face shields for healthcare workers. Other NASCAR teams that have donated masks or other supplies include Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and JR Motorsports.

* IMSA team CORE Autosport told the AP it has produced and sold several thousand face masks for health care professionals.

* Technique Inc., which produces chassis kits for NASCAR teams, has repurposed its Jackson, Michigan factory – just a few miles from Michigan International Speedway – and expects to increase production to 20,000 face shields by the end of this week, according to the AP.

* The largest team in NHRA drag racing, Don Schumacher Racing, is using its two 3D printers non-stop to build headbands that attach to face shields, the AP reported.

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