‘The Great American Race’, the Daytona 500, kicks off another NASCAR season this weekend.
It’s hard to imagine NASCAR could fare any better in 2021, as its rapid return to the track last year after the coronavirus pandemic heightened interest in the series.
It led the way in pushing for equality through the campaigning of Bubba Wallace and the banning of the Confederate flag. It also happened across a new format of removing practice and qualifying which created more exciting races.
However, the arrival of Grammy Award-winning artist Pitbull, basketball star Michael Jordan and a host of other off-season activities means there’s plenty to look forward to this season starting with the series’ biggest race.
Mr Worldwide and the Last Dance’s debut…
Today was a good day
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) February 11, 2021
Celebrity pulling power has been at the centre of the NASCAR offseason. The first came when Chicago Bulls basketball legend Michael Jordan – a Carolina native and long-time NASCAR fan – teamed up with Denny Hamlin to launch 23XI, signing Wallace to drive.
Wallace was at the centre of a protracted silly season of ‘will they won’t they’ with his long-time Cup Series backers Richard Petty Motorsports and the new rumoured team.
His increased profile in 2021 led to a host of new sponsors as the stars aligned for the formation of the Hamlin-Jordan team.
You have to temper expectations as much of the team is new or adopted from the old Germain Racing entry, but a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, and the fact 23XI will be the only car outside of Gibbs racing for Toyota, means immediate success is possible.
Many have questioned whether Wallace is good enough to fight for wins and championships since he joined the series in 2017. Now we’ll finally find out.
Despite being critical of his own performance, he came second in one of the two Duel races that act as a precursor to the 500 on the Daytona superspeedway, and it would be a ‘Kodak moment’ if he can make it to victory lane at his first attempt with the squad.
Speaking of Kodak moments, Pitbull has joined ex-driver Justin Marks in backing Daniel Suarez’s Trackhouse Racing Team entry for 2021. The effort has partnered with Richard Childress Racing.
Pitbull will be the grand marshal for the Daytona 500.
Motivated megastars with no Daytona 500 wins
Last year’s champion Chase Elliott, double champion Kyle Busch and even six-time superspeedway winner Brad Keselowski are yet to enter victory lane in the Daytona 500.
Elliott – just 25-years-old – spearheads a phenomenal Hendrick Motorsports line-up after claiming last year’s title, but the 2019 Talladega winner will be hoping to tick another checkbox that his dad Bill managed, winning the Daytona 500 in 1985 and ’87 as one of the series’ best superspeedway racers of the era.
Busch had a woeful 2020 season in contrast to Elliott, but won the clash race, which admittedly means little this year as it was contested on the Daytona road course for the first time. But the momentum that barnstorming win must bring can’t hurt for his chances at Daytona.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 10, 2021
Keselowski, team-mates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano are always ones to watch as Penske’s lead drivers. Keselowski has even won at Daytona in the fall race but the 2012 champion doesn’t count the biggest event as part of his gleaming resume – much to his chagrin.
Blaney, like Elliott, is another emerging star and he’s won two of the last five races on restrictor-plate tracks and will certainly be counted among the favourites.
Unprecedented Hamlin three-peat?
Denny Hamlin has won the last two Daytona 500s. Only Richard Petty (1973-73) and Cale Yarborough (1983-84) have managed that before him.
Winning a third would surely elevate Hamlin to ‘all-time great’ status even if he is yet to lift a Cup Series title in his 16 years in the series.
His Joe Gibbs team will be strong with Busch, Christopher Bell and the newly-extended Martin Truex Jr for company as well as the affiliated Wallace, and in recent years teams working together has become vital in the outcome of the result.
Gibbs, Penske and Hendrick – with Alex Bowman (below right) and William Byron (below left) on the front row in qualifying – are always up front and add Austin Dillon to that list of top challengers.
The 2018 winner pulled off a stunning run at the end of the second Duel to steal victory from Wallace, and we know that NASCAR loves a story and an anniversary.
Dillon races the #3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr, and it’s 20 years since his passing in the 2001 Daytona 500.
A tie-up between Childress and Hendrick for engines only makes Dillon look like a more threatening proposition at this year’s event.
Don’t call it a comeback…
The Race sat down with Kyle Larson recently to discuss his road back to NASCAR and he is back and with one of the series’ best teams. Larson is one of a number of drivers making a comeback to keep your eye on in this year’s event.
Two previous winners are among those returnees. In 2010, Jamie McMurray helped Chip Ganassi to take the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and IndyCar title all in the same season, and McMurray is back in 2021 after missing last year’s event.
Perhaps with less of a hope of winning, but a fantastic storyline, 62-year-old Derrike Cope will contest his 15th Daytona 500, an event he won in an upset result back in 1990. He’s qualified this year for the first time since 2004.
What’s the key to winning?
Working together with team-mates to draft is the key to the Daytona 500 these days and this can be more tricky than you think when you factor in things like pitstops, which can break up drafting partners.
Obviously staying out of trouble – whether you decide to run in the lead pack through the race or sit further back – is vital and avoiding ‘the big one’ which always comes is just as important.
With the current aero package, drivers in the draft are able to get big runs of speed from behind, so blocking those runs or picking the time to make them is vital. You can see a perfect example of this from the Dillon Duel win here.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 12, 2021
The final key thing to watch for is the weather. They can’t race in the wet and the forecast is abysmal.
Where to watch it?
Fox Sports will show the race, which starts at 1500hrs local time (2000hrs UK). If you’re watching from England you can view it on Premier Sports TV.
You can see the full entry list here.