The 2017 Great American Race: The Daytona 500
Ah, here we are again. The Daytona 500 is upon us. A sign every year that, very soon, spring will be upon us. The roar of the engines, the bright Florida skies, and the screaming fans every time Dale Earnhardt, Jr. makes a move for the lead, it's not all exclusive to Daytona International Speedway, but it's the first sign of the year that NASCAR has returned.
Many who watch this race will not watch another NASCAR race for the rest of the year. The only other auto race they may watch for the rest of the year is the Indianapolis 500 in May, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Historically, the Indy 500 was the highest rated auto race in the US on TV. However, more recently, that honor belongs to NASCAR's biggest race, and also it's first of the season.
Since it's inception in 1959, the best of the best have won the Daytona 500. Names like Lee Petty, Richard Petty, AJ Foyt, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhadt, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Darrell Waltrip, and Bill Elliott have all graced victory lane at Daytona.
However, Daytona International Speedway has also been the site of several upsets along the way. Names like Tiny Lund, a replacement driver who went on to win in 1963, despite running out of gas on the final lap. Names like Ward Burton, perhaps best known for being the brother of Jeff Burton, a perennial contender from the late 1990's, Ward was in the right place in the right time in 2002, winning the race after a bizarre sequence that saw the leader spin out and the man who spun him and took the lead get penalized for trying to repair his car while the race was under a red flag (for those of you knew to auto racing, a red flag means the cars stop where they are on the track so that the track can be cleaned following an accident). Names like Michael Waltrip, whom, unlike his legendary brother, Darrell, was winless in his first 462 races going into 2001, only to pull the incredible victory, driving for Dale Earnhardt (tragically, Earnhardt would pass away following a crash in the final turn on the final lap of this very race).
Yet the greatest upset of them all most likely occurred in 2011. While the Wood Brothers were a legendary team in NASCAR, their fortunes withered as the decades rolled on, including reducing to a limited schedule for the 2011 season, and hiring Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 the day before that Daytona 500. With low expectations going in, Bayne found himself towards the front for most of the race, though nobody really gave him a chance towards the end, especially with a top driver in Carl Edwards immediately behind him. To the shock of the racing world, Trevor Bayne would hold on, and would become the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 in history, and would restore some faith into the famed Wood Brothers. His line upon crossing the finish line, "ARE YOU KIDDING ME??" still resonates volumes to the impact the Daytona 500 has in NASCAR.
Thing brings us to 2017. Will we see a new multi time Daytona 500 winner? Will we see a 1st time Daytona 500 winner? Will someone break through and win their first ever race, as many have done in this iconic event? Will Denny Hamlin become the first driver since Sterling Marlin in 1994-1995 to repeat as Daytona 500 champion?
Before I get to my favorites for the race, and my final prediction for the winner, here are some things to remember about this race:
The Daytona 500 is a 500 mile race, competed on a 2.5 mile tri-oval, across 200 laps. The green flag to start the racer will waive around 2pm EST today. A new rule in the Cup Series (the highest level of NASCAR) will see the race effectively broken into 3 segments: The 1st 25% of the race, where the top 10 racers at this point will receive season points in descending order from 10 for 1st place to 1 for 10th place; the 2nd 25%, with the same rules applying as the 1st segment; finally, the final 50% will be competed for all the marbles. The winner gets the maximum points, with runners up receiving points in descending order until the 40th and final position, which gets one point. You still get a bonus point for leading a lap, and a bonus point for leading the most laps. Daytona International Speedway, where today's race will be held, is so large and allows for such great speeds, that it is too dangerous for the cars to go at max speeds (at these speeds, in the event of a crash, both the driver could experience devestating injuries, and the fans could be put in danger if the car were to get airborne, as Bobby Allison saw in 1987 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, when his car blew a tire, got airborne, and nearly went through the protective fence along the track and into the stands). Therefore, the cars engines are equiped with a restrictor plate to slow the engines max performance down leading to slightly safer speeds of just under 200mph.
All that being said, here are the favorites to win the 59th running of the Daytona 500:
For the 2nd consecutive year, Chase Elliott will start on the pole for the Daytona 500. Elliott, a rookie last year, failed to win from the top starting spot last year, although that isn't uncommon. Only 9 pole sitters out of 58 have gone on to win the Daytona 500, and none since Dale Jarrett in 2000. Although Elliott did not win a race in his rookie campaign of 2016, he finished in the top 5 ten times, the top 10 seventeen times, and finished 10th in the final points standings, a very strong finish for a rookie. His sophomore season will see him go after his first victory, and what better way to make a splash than to win the biggest race of the season? He has been fast all week, and even won his qualifying race in addition to being the fastest individual qualifier. Look for the 24 car to make a huge run at Daytona 500 glory, as his father, Awesome Bill, did in 1985 & 1987.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Junior is NASCAR's most popular driver, and it isn't even close. When he wins, the roars are thunderous from the stands. When he crashes, the gasps are audible from the broadcast booth. Earnhardt has won the Daytona 500 twice before, in 2004 and 2014. Junior will start from the 2nd position, and nearly won his qualifying race on Thursday. 2017, however, is far different from any year for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., though. Junior missed most of 2016 due to concussion symptoms, and it nearly forced him into an early retirement. While he is contemplating retirement after this season or next due in large part to these concussion issues, he has been medically cleared to race for the first time in far too long. Junior now has a new lease on life, a new wife, and a new year to prove his worth in NASCAR. Look for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to make a solid run at glory, in what could be the comeback of the century for the face of NASCAR.
After coming so close in several chances, Hamlin broke through in 2016 to win his first Daytona 500. Now, 2017 is off to yet another promising start for the 11 car, as Hamlin has already won in NASCAR (he won his qualifying race, passing Earnhardt, Jr on the final lap). Denny Hamlin has always been a contender in the Cup series, and that does go back to his rookie season. He has been fast in practice all week, and if he can translate that into race conditions, he will be in a prime spot to repeat as champion. He will start in 4th, just behind the front row of Elliott and Earnhardt, Jr. As has already been mentioned, starting 1st isn't a great omen for the Daytona 500, so perhaps Hamlin is in the best position of all to be just behind the leaders to start the race. If anyone has had the best chance to repeat as Daytona 500 winner over the last 20 years, it has to be Denny Hamlin this year.
Kevin Harvick drives a car sponsored by Jimmy John's. It's a coincidence that his car is always freaky fast, as Harvick has always had a nose for victory. His first win came in his 3rd ever Cup Series race, coming on a photo finish against Jeff Gordon in Atlanta. Not to be outdone, his first, and so far only, Daytona 500 victory came on a photo finish against Mark Martin, as just about the entire field of remaining drivers proceeded to crash behind Harvick and Martin. Kevin Harvick is among the active wins leaders with 36, which is no small feat for the 16 year veteran. Harvick will start 5th in today's Daytona 500, which is a promising spot for the former Cup Series Champion. If he can stay out of trouble and maintain his usually high speeds, look for Kevin Harvick to make a run at his 2nd Daytona 500 championship.
When NASCAR instituted the current playoff structure, wherein the season points championship is determined in the last few races instead of the traditional season long accumulation of points, it was in an effort to create parity in a sport that had seen an influx of great young talent in the early 2000's. Jimmie Johnson has since made an art of competing in NASCAR's version of the playoffs. Essentially, the season points are reset after the 1st wal26 races, and only the top 16 drivers advance to the playoffs. In 2016, Jimmie Johnson tied the NASCAR Cup Series record with 7 Championships. He is tied with the 2 biggest names in the sport: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson also has 2 Daytona 500 victories to his name, coming in 2006 and 2013. He is the active leader in victories with 80, which is just 11 wins shy of the man who owns his car, Jeff Gordon (Gordon is 3rd all time). Despite averaging a 27th place finish in the Daytona 500 that immediately follows his Cup Championship, and in spite of starting in the 26th position, you can never count out perhaps the greatest driver of this generation in the biggest race of the year.
Let's be honest here: Michael Waltrip has almost no shot to win this race. This is his only race of the year, and the final race of his career, after which, he has announced, he will retire. He has 2 Daytona 500 victories to his name, the first of which coming in the previously mentioned 2001 edition, and the 2nd coming just 2 years later in a rain shortened Daytona 500. He was never a successful as his brother Darrell Waltrip, whose career included multiple Cup Series Championships, 84 individual victories, and the greatest victory celebration in NASCAR history upon winning the 1989 Daytona 500 (look it up on YouTube, you won't regret it). Still, Michael kept his chin up and never gave up. His personality is almost as colorful as Darrell's, and when the 2 of them appear on screen together, we are all sure to laugh. So while Michael Waltrip will never go down as a legendary driver or have legendary accomplishments, he will be remembered after this race as a true gentleman of the sport, a true character on and off the track, and, perhaps most importantly of all, as a 2-time Daytona 500 champion. He won't win from the 32nd starting spot, but you better believe that if he takes the lead, even for one lap, the crowd will give this ambassador of the sport a thunderous standing ovation.
In the end, there can only be one winner in the Daytona 500. Only one person can raise the Harley J. Earle trophy in victory land and be proclaimed the 2017 Daytona 500 Champion. Today, my pick for the Daytona 500 is a man who will be a first time winner, both in the Daytona 500 and in the Cup Series. My Choice?
CHASE ELLIOTT WILL WIN THE 2017 DAYTONA 500!
Write it down, that's my pick, and I'm sticking with it. He would become the 2nd youngest Daytona 500 winner in history at 21 years old, behind only Trevor Bayne. He has winning in his veins. He drives the famed 24 car, which he took over from the retiring Jeff Gordon. He drives for Rick Hendrick, the most successful car owner in NASCAR history, all due respect to Richard Petty and the Wood Brothers. He is coming off of a Rookie of the Year season. He has won the pole his first two tries in the Daytona 500, the only driver to do so, and has already won at Daytona this week. Chase Elliott will make history today, claiming his first Daytona 500 Victory.