COMMENTARY | While it may seem like just yesterday that Jimmie Johnson wrapped up his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the engines in America’s most popular racing series have been silent for three months. That silence gets broken this week when NASCAR kicks off its marathon schedule (36 points paying races and two special events) with its biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500.
The best way to beat back the grips of Old Man Winter is to make your way to sunny (we hope) Florida and take in the race in person. But, if you are stuck at home watching on Fox, below is a quick viewer’s guide to Sunday’s big race.
Familiar faces, different places
A new season means new drivers in new garages, and this year brings about some big changes. For the first time in 13 seasons, Kevin Harvick isn’t driving for Richard Childress. Rather, he teams with Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick in the Stewart-Haas Racing garage, joining fellow incoming veteran, and 2004 Cup champion, Kurt Busch. While it might take a while for fans to readily identify Harvick in the #4 and Busch in the #41, it won’t take either driver very long to establish his presence at the front.
Replacing Busch in the Furniture Row Racing #78 is Martin Truex, Jr., still finding his way back from being collateral damage in the wake of Michael Waltrip Racing’s clumsy attempt to manipulate the field for last season’s Chase. Ryan Newman moves from Stewart-Haas and finds himself in Childress’ #31.
A new face will appear at Daytona, but in a familiar number from yesteryear. Rookie Austin Dillon will race in the #3 car of his grandfather Childress, a number missing from Daytona since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal accident at the end of the 2001 race. Dillon won the pole and will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday, and he’ll be a story to follow the entire week.
A driver by another name
The name you will hear most on Sunday, even more so than “Daytona,” is likely to be Danica Patrick. NASCAR legend Richard Petty drew a lot of attention earlier this month when he stated Patrick could only win a race if every other driver stayed home. While he may not have been tactful or politically correct, he might not have been wrong.
In the past 9 seasons, Patrick has raced in some of the top equipment in both IndyCar and NASCAR, a total of 222 races (116 IndyCar, 60 NASCAR Nationwide, and 46 NASCAR Sprint Cup), and has exactly one victory to show for her efforts. Patrick attracts lots of media and fan attention because she’s a pretty woman in a field of men – she definitely sticks out.
That being said, Patrick does her best on big circuits where the racing is flat out, playing to her strengths and completely avoiding her shortcomings in threshold braking and rolling back onto the throttle. She will give it a good run on Sunday, but look for other competitors to be more likely winners.
The race to get to the race
The purpose of the race’s first 400 miles is to get to the last 100 miles. Unfortunately, some contenders will fall to the wayside, victims of mechanical failures or an accident – it happens every year to at least one big name, and it leaves the door open for some of the sports lesser known names, like Trevor Bayne, winner in 2011, or Derrike Cope, winner in 1990. Expect one or more big name to be on the sidelines by the 400-mile point, with the most likely cause being caught up in another driver’s wreck.
Then, buckle up for the last 100 miles. Nobody remembers second place at the 500, so the race always brings last lap thrills. With this year’s Chase for the Cup rewarding race victories more than consistent points paying finishes, more of the field will have a ‘win or get wrecked trying’ approach. Don’t leave the sofa the last 10 laps.
So, who wins?
Who knows? The competition in NASCAR is too tough to mark a clear favorite, and the formula rewards racing cooperatively in packs, at least until the final dash to the checkered flag. However, even in the tight field, there is usually an upper tier that comes to the front. You won’t get great odds betting the Hendrick (defending 500 and Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) or Joe Gibbs Racing drivers (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Matt Kenseth), but you’ll likely have an opportunity to celebrate.
Drivers, start your engines!
@RayHartjen is a longtime motorhead who caught the racing bug growing up in Indianapolis and living at “the brickyard” every May.