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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NASCAR’s best assembled in Charlotte last week for media day ahead of the 2020 season, as each driver paraded in front of multiple cameras to show off their new threads (firesuits), record promos for tracks and GIFs for social media accounts.
They also got to show off their new helmets for the year.
Here’s a look at the helmets Cup Series drivers will sport this season.