- Jul 23, 2014
With the 2015 Daytona 500 just days away, RaceDepartment offers a preview of Sunday's running of the Great American Race.
The Daytona 500 is a storied race with a lore that is truly unique. Succeeding the coastal beaches of Daytona Beach, Florida, that served as a landmark venue for stock car racing in its infancy, Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959 as the largest superspeedway oval in America. The very first 500-mile race held that year was decided in a thrilling photo finish. The events that unfolded in the closing stages of the 1979 Daytona 500 - the last-lap crash of the dueling contenders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, and the fight that ensued when the tempers overflowed on live television - helped push the sport into national prominence.
It is in this race where devoted followers of the Earnhardt clan experienced the ultimate joy in seeing the family patriarch, Dale Earnhardt Sr., win his first Daytona 500 in 1998 after twenty bitterly unsuccessful tries, only to suffer through an unthinkable tragedy when he perished in a last lap crash just three years later. Those same grieving fans were to be uplifted again by the first Daytona win for his son, Dale Jr., another three years later. Victory at the Daytona 500 has solidified the legacies of legendary drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, and Darrell Waltrip, while creating folk heroes out of otherwise forgettable drivers like 1990 race winner Derrike Cope.
In this, the fifty-seventh running of the Great American Race, a new chapter in the history of stock car racing's most prestigious race is set to be written, and on pole position for the race sits a driver who has been the standard bearer of a generation for over two decades, a driver who with his presence and success has reshaped the image of NASCAR as a sport for all time, competing in his final Daytona 500.
Hendrick Motorsports have won the Daytona 500 eight times, and the team's standard bearer for over two decades, Jeff Gordon, has accounted for three of those victories - the first in 1997, the last in 2005. In his twenty-third and final Daytona 500 start, four-time Cup Series champion Gordon is an overwhelming sentimental favorite to win on Sunday. When he arrived in Daytona for the first time in 1993, he was a 21-year-old upstart, an open-wheel prospect who turned down a shot to race through the ladder to Formula One and spurned the chance to become a top star in IndyCar racing. Today, Gordon, now 43 years of age and bidding for a fifth championship in his last campaign, is the respected elder statesman of NASCAR. His bid for a fourth Daytona 500 win will not come easy, however, for Gordon will have to battle an extremely competitive field, along with an unfavorable history for Daytona pole winners in recent years. The last polesitter to win the Daytona 500 was Dale Jarrett all the way back 2000, which could render Gordon's pole-winning 201.293 MPH average lap - the fifth-fastest ever in the history of this race - completely irrelevant.
It's a product of the ultra-competitive pack racing that's produced at Daytona, where slipstreaming in tightly-compressed, three-wide packs at over 200 miles per hour is a high-risk necessity, and a seemingly unsurmountable deficit can be easily erased in one lap with a well-timed surge and a push from a trailing car. It's that sort of driving that has made the introduction of NASCAR's knockout group qualifying format, new to the Daytona 500 this year, a highly unpopular affair amongst many of the sport's top drivers and most vocal fans - especially after a five-car crash in the opening round of the Sunday pole qualifying session triggered a televised tirade from an irate Clint Bowyer.
Gordon may be the sentimental pick to win this weekend, but he still has tough competition to be the number one fan favorite in this Sunday's race. That competition comes from his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., the two-time and defending Daytona 500 champion, who starts in third place as he seeks to become just the sixth driver to win this race three or more times. Earnhardt enters off the tail end of his most successful Cup Series campaign in ten years, with the added momentum of winning the first of two Gatorade Duel qualifying races. The other Duel winner, Jimmie Johnson, starts on the outside of the front row. Just like Earnhardt, Johnson is a two-time Daytona winner seeking a third victory in this race. While Gordon and Earnhardt will garner most of the affection from fans, the six-time Cup Series champion Johnson, the legitimate number one driver at Hendrick Motorsports over the past decade, cannot be overlooked on Sunday as the driver of car number 48 seeks to begin his campaign for a record-tying seventh championship with a victory at Daytona - just as he did in 2006 and 2013.
There is yet another long-serving veteran of NASCAR's circuit who enters the 2015 Daytona 500 as a popular pick to win. Tony Stewart has won three Sprint Cup titles, he's been a champion in all levels of North American open-wheel racing from midget cars to the Indy Racing League, and he's basked in the glow of victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a two-time winner of the Brickyard 400. But after an emotionally traumatic 2014 season, Stewart enters his seventeenth Daytona 500 on the back of the first winless NASCAR campaign of his legendary career, but is motivated to regain his old, winning form even as he still battles to recover from the physical pain of a broken leg sustained in a sprint car accident in 2013, and the emotional pain of the 2014 accident that killed young, up-and-coming driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Even if he does not take his car to victory lane, as the co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, Stewart still has a few aces up his sleeve. Most notably in the form of reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, who previously won the 2007 Daytona 500 in a wild photo finish by beating Mark Martin by mere milliseconds. Stewart's team also fields a car for Regan Smith, the former Rookie of the Year who has been drafted in on Friday as a replacement to the suspended former champion Kurt Busch, and for the only woman to compete in the Sprint Cup Series, the sensationally popular Danica Patrick. Patrick, who had to battle until the last lap of her qualifying race just to make the field - but who is also a former pole sitter at Daytona. A win for any one of the four drivers in the Stewart-Haas Racing team will only bolster the organization's credibility further as co-owner Gene Haas prepares for his team's 2016 Formula One debut. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that Stewart-Haas are only entering their seventh season in their current guise.
Speaking of super-powered organizations, Joe Gibbs Racing, the top squad representing Toyota, have added Carl Edwards in the highest-profile driver transfer of the off-season. Edwards, who spent the entirety of his career to date with Roush Fenway Racing, joins a Gibbs squad including two-time Daytona winner Matt Kenseth, who won last week's Sprint Unlimited exhibition race. It also includes fourth-place starter Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin, who finished second in last year's Daytona 500 to Earnhardt Jr. Edwards, Busch, and Hamlin are all seeking their first Daytona 500 wins, and their first Sprint Cup championships in 2015. But considering the hype around the Gibbs squad as a collective, anything less than championship glory for any one of their marquee drivers would seem unacceptable.
Heading the charge for Ford is Team Penske, and their controversial duo of former Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski and young phenom Joey Logano. Both dynamic and successful drivers, but both have the unsavory reputation of being NASCAR's "bad boys" after multiple on-track run-ins and off-track altercations since first being united as teammates in 2013. A win at Daytona this Sunday for either driver may only amplify the scorn of the public instead of silence it. But in NASCAR, success often trumps widespread popularity, and Keselowski, Logano, and Penske seek the former above all else - success motivates "The Captain" Roger Penske in every single one of his racing endeavors.
If any team enters Daytona as a sorely overlooked favorite to win, it could very well be Chip Ganassi Racing. Last month, their two NASCAR drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson co-drove the winning entry at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. This weekend, McMurray, a former Daytona 500 winner in 2010, and Larson, the 22-year-old reigning NASCAR Rookie of the Year and a highly-rated star of the future who has drawn so many comparisons to a young Jeff Gordon, will stake their claim to another Daytona victory this winter.
Other realistic dark horses in the field include the 21-year-old Daytona rookie Ryan Blaney, the new pilot of the famous number 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing. This legendary team last won in 2011 with rookie Trevor Bayne, who now moves on to a full-time role at Roush Fenway Racing, who seek to rebuild around a young lineup that also includes former NASCAR Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Roush mainstay Greg Biffle - each of which has run well at Daytona this Speedweeks. How soon did we forget last year's pole sitter, Austin Dillon, driving the legendary number 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing - and teammate to Cup Series runner-up Ryan Newman, who has also won this event before, in 2008? Then there are the longest of the long shots - independent drivers like Reed Sorenson, who rebounded from the controversial qualifying shunt last Sunday to race his way into the 500 - he'll start fourteenth in a car that was only just rebuilt in time to allow its journeyman driver a chance to get in the field.
Two hundred laps and five hundred miles separate forty-three drivers and their teams from the ultimate single-race prize in NASCAR - their name engraved for all time on the base of the Harley J. Earl Trophy, and the honor of celebrating in Victory Lane at Daytona as the winner has done fifty-six times before them. It does more than open a ten-month long trek to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title, it stands on its own as a marquee event not only in American motorsport, but in the global racing landscape.
The fifty-seventh running of the Daytona 500 begins at 13:00 EDT / 1800 GMT on 22 February.