The time has come. After two months without the roar of engines in a full 40-car field we have now arrived at Daytona 500 Sunday.
There is more hype for both this race and the 2021 season as a whole then there has been for a long time. It is great for the sport to ride such a wave of momentum into the “Super Bowl of stock car racing.”
Before the green flag waves at 3:00 p.m. on Sun, Feb. 14, let’s look at the biggest storylines to start the season and who the favorites are in the 63rd running of the Great American Race.
Michael Jordan. Just by saying his name your first thought is likely of a moment in history of him succeeding. Considered by many to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, an international icon, he is now an owner of a cup series team.
Surprising to some, Jordan is a lifelong NASCAR fan. He has teamed up with longtime golfing buddy and 3-time defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form this single-car team. They are under the Toyota Racing Development umbrella and have a technical alliance with the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, who Hamlin himself drives for.
The driver of this car is Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. For better or worse Bubba Wallace is a polarizing figure. Wallace is the only african-american driver in the cup series and was at the forefront of NASCAR’s effort against social injustice.
For all the good he has done off-track there is only one thing he can do now that matters.
And if not that, at the very least succeed. This is the best opportunity he has ever had. There is no excuse for him to not make the playoffs when NASCAR returns to Daytona in August. You have a winner of 40 races, and Michael Jeffrey Jordan in your corner. If he can’t perform with that support, he’ll be out of the car. No more running in the back.
The Pride of Dawsonville Georgia
Chase Elliott, 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Champion. If he wasn’t already, beyond a shadow of a doubt Elliott is the face of the sport. With seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson retiring at season’s end, while already the performance leader at Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott is the symbolic leader as well.
Chase is the longest tenured driver on the team and his championship has officially moved him into superstar status. Winner of the last four road course races in the Cup Series and now entering a season featuring seven of them, the stars are lining up for the Elliott era of dominance to begin.
Kyle Larson’s Return
Sticking with Hendrick, the number 5 car is back on track for the first time since 2017 and with plenty of eyes on it. Kyle Larson will make his first cup series start since Mar. 8, 2020, the last race before the pandemic began.
His story has been well covered. Exiled from the sport for months he worked to rebuild his image and not a day passes that he doesn’t regret his very costly hot-mic mistake. After laying waste to his competition on dirt, now like Bubba Wallace he has a rare opportunity in front of him. It is said that time heals all wounds, and winning solves everything.
The magnifying lens may not be as focused on Larson, but when he wasn’t in the cup series the thought of many was that his talent couldn’t be ignored. Now it’s time to see if that thought was right.
Daytona 500 Favorites
Hamlin has to be the top pick in Sunday’s Race. He is the two-time defending winner, has won three of the last five Daytona 500’s, and his worst finish in the last five is 17th in 2017, the only non top-five in that stretch.
Logano won the 500 in 2015 and also has three wins at the other plate-racing track Talladega Superspeedway. Unless he throws another infamous bad block, if Logano is around at the finish, he can win it.
Keselowski is one of the most experienced drivers to never win the 500. He has won once at Daytona (Summer 2016), and five times at Talladega. He and his Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano will be strong, and likely work together until late in the race.
As for my pick, I’m going with Aric Almirola. He’s won once at both Daytona and Talladega, won his duel race Thursday, and is a native of Tampa Bay, the ultimate sports success town as it seems now.
For live updates of the Daytona 500 follow @WUMotorsports on twitter, and most of all enjoy the race.