NASCAR 2017: The Daytona 500 Preview

The 5 stories to watch for in tomorrow's race.

The Great American Race kicks off NASCAR’s 2017 season tomorrow and there are a number of stories to follow during the 500 mile event. So, here are five stories to look out for in tomorrow’s Daytona 500. 

1. A Tale of Two Hendricks 

The four Hendrick teammates have had very different experiences during 2017 Speedweeks. Second-year driver Chase Elliott is stealing the show with his second consecutive pole position at the Daytona 500, and a win in Thursday night’s first Duel at Daytona. Lining up beside Elliott is teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has just returned after missing the final 18 races of 2016 thanks to concussion like symptoms. Many—this writer included—didn’t expect Earnhardt to be back at the pointy end of the grid so quickly after his return, but here his is with perhaps his best shot at winning his third Daytona 500.  

The other half of the Hendrick team, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, have not had the Speedweeks either hoped for. Johnson crashed out of the Clash for the sixth consecutive time and will start at the back of the field after suffering a blown tire in the duels that forced him to switch to a back-up car. And Kahne, seeking redemption after a 2016 season in which he led a staggering zero laps, will roll off 28th for Sunday’s race. 

2. Stewart-Haas Racing Looks to Impress in First Ford Outing 

So far it has been mission accomplished for the Tony Stewart and Gene Haas owned outfit. In their first race with Ford, Stewart-Haas racing has qualified all four of their cars in the top 15 for the Daytona 500. Three of those cars, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch, have made the top eight, with Danica Patrick following not far behind in 14th. However, qualifying means very little at Daytona and the team still wants to impress in their first race after the switch from Chevrolet. 

3. Penske Is Still the Best Ford Team Out There

While they may not have won the 2016 Daytona 500, Penske is still the Ford team to beat at this year’s race. Drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won three of four restrictor plate races last year. Coupled with Joey Logano’s Clash win this year, and Ryan Blaney, driving for Penske’s satellite team Wood Brothers Racing, charging to the front in Duel number two, it’s clear that Penske is the top Ford team going into Sunday’s race. SHR has got some stiff competition. 

4. However, Gibbs Is the Team to Beat

Though Penske and Hendrick have shown speed so far in Speedweeks, beating the Joe Gibbs Racing team will still prove a herculean effort. Denny Hamlin took victory in Thursday’s second Duel, earning himself P4 in qualifying. The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is hungry for another victory at the track, but will have to fight off 39 other drivers, including his three teammates and Gibbs’ two satellite cars, to take that win. 

Teammate number one is Matt Kenseth. The sneaky fast Wisconsinite has two Daytona 500 wins under his belt and can never be counted out in any NASCAR race. He may not be the odds-on favorite going into Sunday’s race, but there’s a reason Coach Gibbs keeps him around. Teammate number two is Daniel Suárez. The new kid from Monterrey, Mexico has proved his talent in NASCAR series both North and South of the border. Taking over for the recently retired Carl Edwards, Suárez has big shoes to fill and everything to prove in Sunday’s race. Teammate number three is Kyle Busch. What is there to say about the 2015 champion other than the fact that you can never count him out? Busch is looking for his first Daytona 500 win and looks intent on getting that this year. 

In addition to the four primary Gibbs cars, the satellite team, Furniture Row Racing, will also likely be challenging for the top spots. Martin Truex Jr. lost last year’s race by a hair and is looking for redemption in 2017 and Erik Jones is looking to prove that he should have filled the seat in the 19 car left by Edwards. Either way, the six Gibbs affiliated cars will be hard to top this Sunday. 

5. Mikey’s Last Dance

After 784 starts, Michael Waltrip has decided to hang up the helmet. The two-time 500 winner has confirmed that this year’s Daytona 500 will be his last NASCAR race, and, while he would love to win a third in his 30th 500 start, the driver-turned-commentator is really just looking for a top 10 to go out on a high. 

Catch all of the NASCAR action on Fox this Sunday with race coverage starting at 2 p.m. Eastern and prerace festivities beginning at 1 p.m.