By Jared Turner
Dale Jr. is the favorite
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be fast at Daytona and stands an excellent chance of winning his third Daytona 500. How we do know this? He will be in the same car that finished third, first, first and second, respectively in last year’s four restrictor-plate races. This is also the same car – dubbed “Amelia” – that ran roughshod over the field at Daytona last July by starting from the pole and leading 96 of 161 laps en route to victory. Still don’t think Dale Jr. is the favorite in The Great American Race? In the last six Daytona 500s, the third-generation driver has finished worse than third just once. And in the one 500 that he didn’t finish in the top three over that stretch, he started from the pole.
Repeating is tough … really tough
Only three times in the 57-year history of the Daytona 500 has a winner of the sport’s biggest race pulled off the feat in consecutive seasons. Richard Petty did it in 1973 and 1974. Dale Yarborough did it in 1983 and 1984. And Sterling Marlin did it in 1994 and 1995. So it’s been more than two decades since a winner of the Daytona 500 went back-to-back. What does all this mean for 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano? Well, statistically speaking, the odds of repeating are stacked against him. But Logano did win last fall at Talladega, proving that his victory in the Daytona 500 was no fluke. While the Team Penske driver might not be the favorite to win at Daytona this time, he certainly has to be part of the discussion.
These rookies are for real
It’s been several years since the Sprint Cup Series boasted an exceptionally potent rookie class. Rest assured, this year’s fits the bill. Leading the group is Chase Elliott – that’s Bill son’s – who replaces Jeff Gordon in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 Chevy. In two years as an XFINITY Series driver, Elliott won the championship and finished second. Then there’s Chris Buescher, the guy who beat Elliott for last year’s XFINITY title. While Buescher won’t have the quality equipment that Elliott will, he’s a talented driver with tremendous potential. Ryan Blaney is a winner of multiple races in both the Truck Series and XFINITY Series, and like Elliott, racing is in his bloodlines. The most unproven driver among the rookies is Brian Scott, but the newcomer to Richard Petty Motorsports is the most experienced of the bunch.
Winning the Daytona 500 is darn difficult
Think it’s hard to win the Daytona 500? Well, consider the list of active drivers who have yet to leave The World Center of Racing with a Harley J. Earl Trophy in their possession. In addition to Tony Stewart – who due to a back injury won’t get the chance to chase an elusive 500 win in his final season – Kurt and Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are all still seeking their first taste of Daytona 500 glory. Three members of that group have won a championship, and four who haven’t ascended NASCAR’s mountain have been the Sprint Cup Series’ runner-up. The bottom line? Winning the Daytona 500 is no easy task. If it were, all of these guys would have already done it.
Speedweeks won’t be the same without ‘Smoke’
One of the saddest stories of the short NASCAR off-season centered around three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who was so looking forward to trying one final time to win the Daytona 500 – a race he’s come close to winning more than once in his 17 previous tries. But with Stewart sidelined indefinitely after suffering a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in an all-terrain vehicle accident while vacationing on the West Coast, he won’t have the opportunity to write a Hollywood-style script in his last 500. Instead, he and his legions of supporters will always wonder what might have been. Without Stewart competing in Daytona, one of the biggest stories going into Speedweeks – Stewart chasing an elusive first Daytona 500 win in his final Daytona 500 start – has been snuffed out.