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2014 Daytona 500: Complete Guide to NASCAR's Premier Race

Joe MenzerFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014

2014 Daytona 500: Complete Guide to NASCAR's Premier Race

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    This is the top of the trophy they all seek heading into the Daytona 500.
    This is the top of the trophy they all seek heading into the Daytona 500.John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    It is the most prestigious NASCAR race of the year.

    Winning it can make an entire season, no matter what else happens during the rest of the grind that will stretch over nearly nine months. In fact, winning it even just once can make an entire career.

    It is the Daytona 500, and this will be the 56th running of the Great American Race on the 2.5-mile superspeedway that is Daytona International Speedway.

    This race, however, isn't won very often by a one-time wonder such as Pete Hamilton (1970) or Derrike Cope (1990). Victory Lane usually is reserved for the best in the business such as defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who has won it twice.

    There is no other race like it, and here is the complete guide to everything you need to know heading into this Sunday's event.

     

Viewing Info

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    Anything can happen at Daytona, and television ratings depend on it.
    Anything can happen at Daytona, and television ratings depend on it.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Fox Sports has the call on this 56th running of Daytona 500, and will bring to bear nearly 60 cameras for the broadcast that begins at noon this Sunday.

    According to Mike Hembree of USA Today, included in this year's arsenal of cameras will be an infrared "heat seeker" model that can illustrate how temperatures are rising inside engines and what FOX refers to as "super zoom" cameras that can magnify images up to 10 times in high definition.

    NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, 67 years young and fresh off emergency gallbladder surgery, has been declared ready to go and will join the usual crew in the broadcast booth: play-by-play man Mike Joy and analyst Larry McReynolds, the former Cup crew chief.

     

     

     

     

What Makes Daytona Special?

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    Jimmie Johnson knows that winning feeling at Daytona.
    Jimmie Johnson knows that winning feeling at Daytona.Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

    Daytona is the birthplace of NASCAR.

    Daytona International Speedway, which held its first Daytona 500 in 1959 (Hall of Famer Lee Petty won it), drips with tradition and history.

    The 2.5-mile superspeedway layout at DIS is unique, and it is one of only two tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where speeds soar so high that restrictor plates are used to limit the intake of air to engines, thus limiting their power. Otherwise, drivers would be registering speeds of well over 200 miles per hour.

    They approach the 200 mph threshold even in these restrictor-plate races, where drafting off the cars running in front of you, knowing when to move in and out of a line or a pack and who to do it with are all variables that make the racing exciting and unpredictable.

    No matter what happens in the first 480 miles, the last 20 or so always seem to be filled with drama befitting NASCAR's most beloved race.

     

Who's on the Pole?

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    Austin Dillon reintroduced the No. 3 car to the Sprint Cup Series in a big way.
    Austin Dillon reintroduced the No. 3 car to the Sprint Cup Series in a big way.Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

    Austin Dillon brought the No. 3 car back to NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series in spectacular fashion, winning the pole for Sunday's race.

    When he wheeled the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy to Victory Lane to celebrate his pole-winning effort, it was the first time a race car bearing that numeral had visited the winner's circle at Daytona International Speedway since the legendary Dale Earnhardt broke a 20-year drought to win his first and only Daytona 500 in 1998. 

    The number had been out of Cup action since Earnhardt's death on a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.

    Unfortunately, winning the pole at Daytona is more for show than anything else. It usually means next to nothing in a race where you can go from first to 15th, or vice versa, in less than a lap.

Top Storylines

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    Tony Stewart making his long-awaited return from injury is among the top storylines heading into this Daytona 500.
    Tony Stewart making his long-awaited return from injury is among the top storylines heading into this Daytona 500.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Smoke is rising, or at least racing again.

    The fact that Tony Stewart will be competing in this Daytona 500 was not a given back when he suffered a terrible broken leg injury in a sprint-car accident last August. It was that bad.

    He's in Daytona, though, and he continues to express confidence that he's ready to, not only get behind the wheel, but start winning races again. This will be his first test.

    Other storylines hovering over Daytona Beach are the Richard Petty-Danica Patrick controversy, in which NASCAR's all-time winningest driver openly questioned Patrick's ability to win at the Sprint Cup level; whether or not defending race champion and defending Cup champ Jimmie Johnson can get his season started right; and whether or not the aforementioned Dillon can follow up his pole-winning performance in qualifying with a decent finish in the race itself.

     

Rookies to Watch

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    All eyes will be on Dillon in the No. 3, but he's not the only rookie running.
    All eyes will be on Dillon in the No. 3, but he's not the only rookie running.Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

    Contrary to popular belief, or at least that of the casual NASCAR observer, Austin Dillon is not the only rookie to debut with a full-time ride this year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

    In addition to Dillon bursting on the Cup scene, rookie Kyle Larson will drive the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing and a number of other smaller teams will be fielding first-year drivers as well.

    Among those, the ones to bear the most watching in this race are Justin Allgaier of Phoenix Racing and Ryan Truex, Martin's younger brother, who will wheel it for BK Racing. None are likely to win—and that includes Dillon—but good showings are possible for them and could go a long way toward sorting out who will be the top rookie during the season to follow.

    That's because, even though it's only one race and virtually anything can happen, if they prove they can handle the pressure and high-speed hijinks of Daytona, they should be good to race anywhere going forward.

     

Drivers With a Chance to Win Their 1st Daytona 500

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    There are a number of drivers who could win their first Daytona 500.
    There are a number of drivers who could win their first Daytona 500.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Denny Hamlin, winner of last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited exhibition race at Daytona, leads a large group of possible contending drivers who have never won the Daytona 500 in Sunday's 43-car field.

    Others who jump to mind are none other than Tony Stewart, who has won the July Cup race at Daytona four times, both of the Busch brothers (Kyle and Kurt), 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Any one of them could break through this time, but they've all been telling themselves that for years.

    Meanwhile, two names to remember as darkhorse candidates who could capture the 500 for the first itme in their careers: Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

    Logano is coming off a breakthrough year in which he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time, while Truex surprisingly finished second in last Sunday's qualifying run to earn a spot alongside pole winner Austin Dillon on the starting front row. Truex is in his first season with the single-car Furniture Row Racing operation that has proven it can put fast cars on these restrictor-plate tracks.

     

Former Winners With the Best Chance to Win Again

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    The two drivers who dueled it out to the end last season are former 500 champs and could challenge again.
    The two drivers who dueled it out to the end last season are former 500 champs and could challenge again.Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth staged a two-driver duel to the finish in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year.

    It's no coincidence that they each own a pair of Daytona 500 victories in their careers. They know their way around the 2.5-mile superspeedway, and they know how to steer clear of the inevitable trouble.

    Knowing how to stay out of trouble is one thing; actually doing it is another—something Johnson knows all too well. Johnson is seeking his third consecutive victory at DIS, having also won the July race there last year. But he also knows how much of a crapshoot it can be, having finished 20th or worse 11 times at the track (including in six consecutive 500s during one stretch) in between his two Daytona 500 wins.

    Kenseth actually has been the more consistent of the two at the track in recent years, despite finishing 37th in last year's 500. He had seven top-eight finishes—including two wins, one second and two thirds—in a stretch of nine races at DIS leading up to last year's season-opening debacle.

     

Who Will Be the Biggest Disappointment?

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    Danica Patrick will be hard pressed to match her 500 success of a year ago.
    Danica Patrick will be hard pressed to match her 500 success of a year ago.John Raoux/Associated Press

    Poor Danica Patrick.

    We don't mean to keep picking on her, but this is the one track she'll visit this season where she'll arrive with at least modest expectations to do well. And she's already off to a rough start, having been sent to the rear of the starting grid in her Thursday qualifying race because of an engine change made necessary after her engine went sour during practice last Friday.

    Fellow driver and her boss at Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Stewart, suffered a similar engine fate during practice and must do the same. But while a veteran driver like Stewart easily can overcome such adversity, it will be much more difficult for Patrick.

    Last year she won the pole for the 500 and finished a respectable eighth in the race. She will start much farther back in the field this year and faces an uphill challenge to come anywhere close to repeating that type of finish this time.

     

Who Will Be the Biggest Surprise?

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    Martin Truex Jr. stands a solid chance of finishing well in his new ride.
    Martin Truex Jr. stands a solid chance of finishing well in his new ride.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    While it's Austin Dillon who sits on the pole, Martin Truex Jr. will start next to him on the front row for the race after finishing second in qualifying.

    Truex was the real victim in last year's SpinGate at Richmond International Raceway, when his then-teammate at Micahel Waltrip Racing, Clint Bowyer, appeared to spin deliberately in a misguided effort to help Truex qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    Instead, it set in motion a series of events that led to Truex having to leave MWR to find another full-time ride. Now he's with the capable single-car operation at Furniture Row Racing and he feels as if he's got something to prove.

    Truex has never fared very well at DIS, but he did win the Daytona 500 pole in 2009 and finished 11th while driving for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing; and he finished sixth in the Great American Race in 2010, his first season with MWR. He could surprise some people this time out. 

Who Will Win?

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    Denny Hamlin could be doing another celebratory burnout come Sunday night.
    Denny Hamlin could be doing another celebratory burnout come Sunday night.Terry Renna/Associated Press

    After much deliberation...the pick is Denny Hamlin.

    Not only did he win with the fastest and best car in the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race—which doesn't happen as often as you might think—but Hamlin is on a mission to make up for what was a lost season in 2013.

    Hamlin missed five early races last season after suffering a fractured vertebra in a wreck with Joey Logano at Fontana, and then spent the rest of the year futilely attempting to save his season. He couldn't, and he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

    Now he's healthy and on a hot streak, undefeated since winning his only race of 2013 last November in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's never won a points race at Daytona, but he did finish fourth in the 500 in 2012, and the karma just seems right this time. 

     

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