The wait is almost over.
Here are some final notes and things you need to know before Sunday’s Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series’ first race of the season:
▪ Martin Truex Jr., the reigning Cup Series champion, has said this week that his No. 78 car just doesn’t have its absolute speed, and he will start 24th. Not the best opening, but there’s at least a silver lining to this weekend for Truex.
His longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, who has battled Stage 3 ovarian cancer for years, recently completed her last bout of chemotherapy and is expected to be at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday. Pollex was at Homestead in November to watch Truex win his first Cup championship.
▪ The fastest driver in the final round of practice Saturday? Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a rookie in NASCAR’s top circuit. Wallace narrowly finished third in the first Can-Am Duel on Thursday, but he has been one of the surprise drivers this week. Wallace is the first full-time African-American Cup driver since Wendell Scott in 1971.
“We all know that means absolutely nothing,” Wallace said of his final practice run, “but it feels good.”
▪ Alex Bowman, who will sit on the pole for the Daytona 500, was criticized for his performance during Thursday’s duels, when he opted to fall straight to the back of the field and protect his car. Bowman said Saturday that while he knew the strategy wasn’t popular, he wanted to do whatever it took to keep that car together.
▪ This week has been a bit of a mixed bag for Hendrick Motorsports, but overall the feeling going into the 500 is encouraging. Bowman is on the pole and Chase Elliott won one of the duels, and even though Jimmie Johnson and Charlotte native William Byron crashed out of their duels, both backup cars performed well in practice Saturday.
▪ What has become apparent, from chatting with various drivers and chew chiefs, is that track position on Sunday will be paramount, even more so than in other years. With the new rules NASCAR implemented in 2018, cars have sacrificed handling to a degree in exchange for speed. That means passing will be incredibly difficult and the race may end up turning into a single-file line – something that drivers in the front will be excited to hear, and those at the back will dread.