With so much change and the dawn of a new era here by introducing a new race car, one of the most anticipated NASCAR seasons of recent memory kicks off Sunday afternoon with the 64th running of the Daytona 500.
Reigning Cup Series champion Kyle Larson starts from the pole. Larson will be alongside teammate Alex Bowman as engines from Hendrick Motorsports were again the class of the field in qualifying.
The 40-car field is a who’s who of talent.
Eight full-time drivers are with new teams, while some organizations expanded over the offseason. Greg Biffle is back as the oldest driver in the field, while Formula 1 and IndyCar champion Jacques Villeneuve brings a fun flavor to the event.
Six previous winners of the Daytona 500 are in Sunday’s field. There are three Rookie of the Year candidates (Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland), and two drivers are making their first Cup Series starts (Gilliland, Noah Gragson).
Here are three things to watch for in the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox):
New car, new feeling
Coming into Speedweeks, drivers had questions about how the Next Gen car would handle and react in the draft. Despite having three practices and a Duel race, the main goal has been keeping the car in one piece this week, so experience is still limited.
Some drivers and teams did go bold and draft, and it was all to learn. It was particularly noticeable how the Team Penske stable approached drafting because it wasn’t enough just to line up and run behind each other, there was quite a bit of bumping going on, which led to a close call between Austin Cindric and Joey Logano.
Brad Keselowski wasn’t timid, and he spent a lot of the practice sessions pushing around new teammate (and RFK Racing employee) Chris Buescher.
Here’s what stood out: Next Gen handles differently in the draft than the previous generation car.
“It might look similar on TV or watching it, but in the draft, it feels way different,” Ryan Blaney said. “The lead car feels a lot different. It feels like you’re draggier. It’s harder to block runs. Your timing is off.”
There are also flaps on the car’s hood, and those bounce back and forth when cars are packed tightly up against each other. Keselowski has been particularly interested in learning the effect of those, if any.
And perhaps the most significant thing to watch is that the rear bumpers of the Next Gen car are curved. Whereas the bumpers on the old car were mostly flat and allowed for the front bumper to hit someone’s rear bumper squarely, that doesn’t happen with Next Gen. It will leave drivers to be especially aware of the shoves they are giving because the driver in front of them is more likely to get out of shape.
“You saw the Gen 6 car take huge shots in the rear bumper to get a lane going,” said Blaney. “You’re not going to be able to do that in this car. If you do, you’re going to wreck somebody. So that’s going to be interesting to see how people approach that on making late blocks and not being able to take a shot in the bumper as hard as before, and these cars are going to get turned to the right easier.”
Said Logano: “The round bumpers are probably the biggest difference with this thing. Obviously, the air around the cars and how you draft is very different, but the round bumpers — I don’t know why we put round bumpers on a race car, but we did. It’s like pushing two marbles against each other. You don’t know which way it’s going to go. It really can upset the cars.”
If you’re surprised the Ford drivers have been fast this week, you must be new here. Doug Yates and his folks from Roush Yates Engines take the Daytona 500 very seriously and it’s shown this week. A Ford driver was fastest in all three practice sessions, and they swept the Thursday night Duel races.
A year ago, Ford won three of the four superspeedway races, and it started with a win in the Daytona 500 by Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports. The Fords have been aggressive and fast this week in practice, learning as much as they can about their cars and the draft.
Ford returning to victory lane is not out of the question. Logano will be as aggressive as he usually is at the superspeedways, but there’s a reason why he’s always at the front when the big moments happen. Blaney has developed into quite the superspeedway racer himself.
McDowell, meanwhile, would love a second shot at victory lane to be able to share it with his family and sponsors. Remember, last year the pandemic shut the infield down, and everyone was told to keep six feet apart. Make no mistake, McDowell is grateful to have won the race, but he did not get the authentic experience of all that glory that goes the biggest race of the year.
And Keselowski is driving with a heavy heart after the loss of his father and a renewed determination to win his first Daytona 500. The No. 6 has looked stout.
A club of one
Here is a quirky stat for you: Denny Hamlin is the only multi-time winner of the Daytona 500 in the field. Hamlin has three wins overall, and he’s won two of the last five Daytona 500 races.
There are a lot of good superspeedway racers in the Cup Series, but Hamlin is the best. He’s always there more times than not.
Five drivers in this year’s race could join Hamlin in the multi-win club if they were to win the Daytona 500 for a second time: McDowell, Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.