With the Winter Olympics and College Basketball in full swing, it’s easy to forget that one other major sporting event is on the calendar this weekend: the Daytona 500.
NASCAR is unique among sports in that its most prestigious event is its first of the season, not its last. Race No. 1 of 36 carries far more weight than any of the other 35.
A year ago, the major buzz coming into Daytona revolved around the new “Generation 6“ car that NASCAR introduced for the 2013 season. After a year of positive reviews, the gen-6 is back for another season. This year, much of the offseason buzz has centered on the new points system that NASCAR has put in place.
But all that will not matter come Feb. 23 in Daytona Beach, Fla., when 43 drivers take to the track for the 56th annual Daytona 500. Rookie Austin Dillon, a student at High Point University, will start on the pole for the event, though having a rookie as the first-place starter is not the biggest story involving Dillon. Since the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt in a 2001 crash, no driver has piloted a car with Earnhardt’s famous No. 3. Dillon, the grandson of Earnhardt’s team owner Richard Childress, will break that trend in the 2014 season.
It would be a major publicity boost for NASCAR if Dillon could find his way to victory lane on Sunday, but he will face plenty of competition. Here are a few other drivers that could be in the hunt:
Kenseth is a two-time Daytona 500 champion (2009 and 2012) who is now in his second year of driving the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kenseth has been a model of consistency throughout his career, and a third Daytona 500 win would cement him among NASCAR’s all-time best. Kenseth led 86 laps in last year’s Daytona 500 before an engine failure relegated him to 37th place.
Johnson begins his quest for a seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship with the Daytona 500 and will enter the race as its defending champion. The 2013 win was his second triumph in the race after finishing first in 2006 as well. One thing is for sure in NASCAR, and that is that Jimmie Johnson cannot be counted out.
Stewart has 19 career victories at Daytona — a combination of the July Sprint Cup series race at the track, exhibition races leading up to the Daytona 500 and wins in NASCAR’s lower levels. The 2002, 2005 and 2011 Sprint Cup champion has never won a Daytona 500 though. This weekend will be Stewart’s first official race back from a broken leg that kept him out of the second half of the 2013 season. Stewart will undoubtedly be hungry for a win, and there would be no better way to say “I’m back” than his first career Daytona 500 triumph.
The 2007 winner of the Daytona 500, Harvick joined Stewart’s Stewart-Haas racing in the offseason after spending 13 seasons driving for Childress. With renewed energy and optimism, there’s no telling what the future holds for Harvick. It could very well be a second win at Daytona on Sunday.
There’s also the chance that a relatively obscure driver could put together a strong day and take the win. Jamie McMurray (2010) and Trevor Bayne (2011) fit that category — the two have a combined eight career wins, seven belonging to McMurray. Either way, excitement will be in the air in Daytona on Sunday. The Daytona 500 begins at 1 p.m. and will be telecast on FOX.