The time for excitement, anticipation, preseason media musings — it’s all over and done with now.
Let’s not dilly-dally any longer. Behold, five predictions (and a potential winner) to watch for in Sunday’s Daytona 500, the biggest race of the NASCAR season:
1. We won’t have a repeat winner ... again: Not since Sterling Marlin in 1994 and 1995 has a driver won back-to-back Daytona 500s, and for good season. It’s one of the sport’s more prestigious races, which follows that drivers will do practically anything to win it. Factor in the restrictor plates, the unpredictability of the inevitable wrecks ... listen, it’s no fluke that only three drivers ever (Marlin, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty) have won the Great American Race in consecutive seasons. Sorry, Austin Dillon, but history isn’t on your side.
2. Someone new hoists the trophy: This one isn’t as ironclad as the last, but in recent years, the trend has been for a new driver to win the 500 each year instead of drivers doubling up. Seeing how as Jimmie Johnson is the only active two-time winner — Johnson also was the last second-time winner, back in 2013 — the odds are in favor of ... well, anyone different. That also counts out a few names: Johnson, Denny Hamlin, reigning champion Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick. This isn’t a definite, but recent 500 history suggests we’ll add another new name to the trophy list.
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3. Hendrick Motorsports earns at least one top-5: Some bold prediction, right? HMS dominated Daytona 500 qualifying, with Charlotte-native William Byron earning his first career pole and last year’s pole-sitter, Alex Bowman, qualifying second. Johnson and Chase Elliott were third and fourth fastest, respectively, so the four HMS drivers are also on the front line for Thursday’s Daytona Duels. But after the team’s horrible start in 2018 — Hendrick’s drivers finished last year’s Daytona 500 in 17th, 23rd, 33rd and 38th — and rough rest of the year, it was a strong look out of the gate. At least one of those four should make it to race’s end and linger around the top 5 — key phrase there being “at least one.”
4. The Big One? Only if you’re lucky: Everyone knows that at Daytona and Talladega, the NASCAR Cup Series’ two superspeedway races, anything can happen. But the one thing guaranteed to happen is the Big One, or at least some variation of a massive wreck that totally upends the race. Last year, there were multiple collisions that could have been classified as “the Big One,” causing more than half the field not to finish the race. In reality, if there’s only one race-changing pileup, drivers should consider themselves lucky. Realistically, and given some changes to the rules package and cars, you’re probably more in line for three of them.
5. And your winner is...: It seems like every season there are a handful of drivers poised to win the Daytona 500, only for someone to come out of the woodwork at the end. There were Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola last year, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. the year before, and dozens of others like them in the years before. The Daytona 500, simply, is just too unpredictable to call. No doubt this year’s race will be no different, but there’s no harm in naming an early favorite. And if there ever were one, it’s Elliott — he has started fourth or better in five of is six Daytona races, and recent qualifying suggests this may be the year he finally earns a crown jewel win. Prediction: Chase Elliott
This week’s NASCAR race at Daytona: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500.
Distance: 200 laps, or 500 miles.
Where: Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile asphalt tri-oval in Daytona Beach, Florida.
When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Austin Dillon.
Also this week: NASCAR Racing Experience 300, Xfinity Series, Daytona International Speedway, 2:30 p.m., Saturday, FS1.
Worth mentioning: This year’s race is the 15th anniversary of the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500.