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Daytona 500 cheat sheet: FAQ for 2024’s Great American Race

DAYTONA, Fla. — Your attention please, my friends and readers who are hard-core NFL devotees and are still in recovery from last weekend. You know who I’m talking about. The folks who wear their favorite QB’s jersey all season, hunkered down in the recliner every Sunday with eye black smeared onto their face and a pair of 25-year-old underwear on, because that’s what they had on when their team won that one big game back that one time so many years ago. Last weekend they spent football’s biggest day answering an endless flurry of queries from relatives who hadn’t watched a down all fall, if ever, like, “Hey, that yellow handkerchief that guy keeps throwing on the field, what does that mean?”

Well, that’s exactly what we lifelong NASCAR fans will be subjected to Sunday when the Daytona 500 roars beneath the green flag to begin its 66th edition. It’s the Super Bowl of stock car racing, only it takes places at the beginning of the season instead as the grand finale. With February snow on the ground, no football to watch and the lure of the sheer over-the-top, turned-up-to-11 spectacle of it all, Daytona inevitably draws the eyeballs of millions of folks who watch NASCAR only once a year. Asking stuff of their obviously locked-in friends like, “Hey, that yellow flag that guy keeps waving over the racetrack, what does that mean?”

It is with that struggle in mind that we present our annual act of service for both sides of the stock car racing coin. A Daytona 500 cheat sheet that NASCAR newbies can memorize to impress that one friend with the “Raise Hell Praise Dale” tattoo, and also something that said Earnhardt follower can print and hand to their lost pal like a 200 mph FAQ.

You’re welcome, America. Enjoy the Great American Race.

Five favorites to win the Daytona 500

During the latest episode of his always entertaining (sometimes too entertaining for NASCAR brass) “Actions Detrimental” podcast, Denny Hamlin was asked for his pick to win the Daytona 500. He replied: “I’m not saying me. I know I’m going to win.” Cocky? Yes, always, but his Daytona confidence is well-founded. After all, he is a three-time winner of NASCAR’s biggest race, one of only six drivers to win three or more, and the other five on that list are already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. If he wins again, he’ll move into a tie for second with Cale Yarborough, trailing only Richard Petty’s seven victories. Hamlin’s confidence is also well backed. Every single major handicapper has the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 installed as the favorite.

So, who is showing up as their second-best pick to click? The guy Hamlin mentioned on that same podcast. “If I don’t [win], I have a bold prediction: Kyle Busch wins his first Daytona 500.”

I strolled the Daytona garage Thursday evening asking for favorites from those who will be competing Sunday. The names mentioned most were Hamlin and Busch; defending Cup Series champ Ryan Blaney, who has finished second in this race twice and was eighth one year ago; Blaney’s Penske teammate Joey Logano, who won the 2015 Daytona 500 and will start first Sunday (although that might be a bad thing, more on that later); and their former teammate-turned-driver/owner Brad Keselowski. All three of those would-be favorites drive Fords. That’s not a coincidence.

The next five to keep an eye on

Kyle Larson is widely regarded as perhaps the fastest of the fast these days. In the past three seasons, he has won 17 races (that’s a lot), as well as a Cup Series title in 2021 and a runner-up finish behind Blaney last fall. For what it’s worth, he doesn’t buy into that pre-Daytona hype and points to his career Daytona 500 numbers, with a paltry two top-10s and zero top-5s in 10 tries. But still, his rivals and the wiseguys have him on their short lists and he was the strongest car in his Duel 150 on Thursday night before surrendering the lead late in the race.

Riding door-to-door with Larson in that second group is fellow 2023 title contender William Byron, who won a series-best six races one year ago and finished eighth at Daytona in the 400-mile August race. Who won that race? Chris Buescher, earning his first career victory, but he also finished fourth in last year’s Daytona 500, his third top-5 in the big race.

Another 500 favorite, according to the odds and the paddock chatter, is Byron and Larson’s Hendrick Motorsport teammate Chase Elliott, son of two-time Daytona 500 winner Bill Elliott. The issue is that the perpetual fan-voted Most Popular Driver is suffering a bit of confidence crisis after a 2023 season in which he missed multiple races, earned zero wins and failed to make the postseason cut.

Finally, the last of our second five-pack is Bubba Wallace. The driver of the 23XI Racing No. 23 has made six Daytona 500 starts and finished second twice; he was a contender one year ago before a late crash; and the first of his two career Cup Series wins came at Daytona’s cousin racetrack, Talladega Superspeedway, in 2021.

Five Daytona dark horses

OK, you really want to impress your racing-obsessed friends? When someone mentions a dark horse, reply, “Actually, there are 16 Dark Horses in the field because of the new Fords.” It’s true. Ford has rolled out a brand-new style of its race car for 2024 and nicknamed it the Dark Horse Mustang.

When it comes to actual, could-they-win long shot picks, though, keep your eyes on Tyler Reddick, who started way back in 19th in Thursday night’s first Duel 150 and diced his way past Larson to seize the win (no doubt making 23XI bosses Hamlin and Michael Jordan very happy). He was followed closely by wunderkind Carson Hocevar, who just turned 20 a few weeks ago — and was racing in the Truck series one year ago — but finished fourth in his qualifying race.

Austin Dillon will start the race 33rd but has won at Daytona twice, including the 2018 Daytona 500 (and he drives Dale Earnhardt’s legendary No. 3 car). Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has always been smooth at superspeedways and is the defending race champion.

Michael McDowell also shocked the world by winning the 2021 Daytona 500. He looked like the strongest car in his Duel before wisely getting out of the fray, because after qualifying second on Wednesday night, he will start on the front row alongside Logano.

And finally, a bonus pick: Martin Truex Jr., who has never been great at Daytona — three top-5 finishes in 37 Daytona oval starts — but, like Busch, has sentiment on his side. What does that mean? Keep reading.

Five legends who have somehow never won the Daytona 500

Truex: 34 career wins; 0-for-19 in Daytona 500; best finish: 2nd, 2016
Busch: 63 career wins; 0-for-18 in Daytona 500; best finish: 2nd, 2019
Keselowski: 35 career wins; 0-for-14 in Daytona 500; best finish: 3rd, 2014
Larson: 23 career wins; 0-for-10 in Daytona 500; best finish: 7th, 2016 and 2019
Elliott: 18 career wins; 0-for-8 in Daytona 500; best finish: 2nd, 2021

Everyone you see listed above will have a Lightning Lane to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but unless they figure out how to win the sport’s most prestigious event, they will also look at the stats on their plaque and go “Damn it!”

To Hamlin’s point with his pick, Busch especially is overdue, having checked off every accomplishment possible except for winning this race. Last year he was in the lead at the end of 500 miles, but a late caution sent the event into overtime, where he wrecked and finished 19th after getting caught up in the crash we call the Big One. Actually, it was the fourth Big One, but it got him.

We write this every year because every year it remains true: These frustrated greats are in great Daytona 500 company. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32, Ricky Rudd was 0-for-29 and Mark Martin was 0-for-29, while Bobby Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart ended their careers a combined 0-for-64.

Wait, Jimmie Johnson is in the Daytona 500?

Speaking of racers in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Johnson was inducted into the Hall just one month ago. So, that means he’s retired, right? No. Not in this world.

Yes, he is retired from full-time driving, but he has moved into full-time team ownership, his second season at the helm of what used to be Richard Petty’s team, now known as Legacy Motor Club. This will be the first of nine planned races for the two-time Daytona 500 winner and his first in a ride other than a Chevy as Legacy MC has switched to Toyotas this year in the hopes that it will be higher up the priority ladder of that manufacturer’s much less crowded roster of teams.

On Thursday night, he nearly literally drove the wheels off that Toyota as he fought to make the field for the race with no safety net of points or provisionals like the ones he enjoyed during his unparalleled career with Hendrick Motorsports, holding off old pal J.J. Yeley in a two-car fight for the final starting spot from their Duel 150.

“I have never felt pressure like that,” Johnson confessed Thursday, explaining his still-new world view as a team owner. “I was literally driving down the backstretch thinking about the people I was letting down. ‘I’m going to miss the Daytona 500, and I’m going to have to be shaking hands and visiting with people while the race is going on?'” He won’t. But man, it was close.

Five things you can shout out to make you seem really dialed in to Daytona

• “It’s the Petty family’s 75th anniversary in NASCAR!” Speaking of Richard Petty, last year NASCAR celebrated its 75th anniversary, and now it’s Petty’s turn. The Petty family, led by Richard and his son/racer/TV analyst Kyle, will spend this whole year commemorating their 75th year in NASCAR, a relationship that began in the very first race of what we now know as the Cup Series, a dirt track date in Charlotte when 11-year-old Richard sat in the grandstands and watched his father, Lee, wreck the car he had borrowed from a neighbor. A decade later, Lee won the inaugural Daytona 500, and Richard went on to add a record seven trophies.

From Petty Enterprises to Richard Petty Motorsports to Legacy MC, The King has been a mainstay in the NASCAR garage. Now he will be celebrated as he should be, at racetracks all season long via massive sculptures of his legendary cowboy hat, adorned with Petty family moments at each track.

• “That’s awesome that Joey Logano won the pole position. It’s a shame he probably won’t win the race.” This one will likely make your in-the-know NASCAR friends scoff and roll their eyes. After all, as we told you earlier, Logano is a future first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer who has won 32 races, including the 2015 Daytona 500.

Once he topped pole qualifying Wednesday night, though, history was immediately against him. The last time the No. 1 starter also wound up the No. 1 finisher was Dale Jarrett … in 2000! Logano was 9 years old.

• “Only 10 laps to go? There’s about to be a giant crash. Trust me.” Remember when we mentioned those four Big Ones in last year’s Daytona 500? Well, three of them happened with under 17 laps remaining in the race and the last two were unleashed in OT.

In the past eight Daytona 500s, there have been four last-lap passes for the lead. Before that, there had been only nine in 57 events. And over the past seven 500s, an average of 31 cars have been involved in crashes, including 30 one year ago. There are only 40 cars in the race. So, yeah, don’t stop watching just because you think the race is nearly over, because chances are it isn’t.

• “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?!” Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be in the house for the Daytona 500. I intend to remind him that seven years ago John Cena drove the pace car and had what is considered the most entertaining celebrity prerace news conference ever seen at Daytona. Then we’ll see what happens.

This year’s honorary pace car driver is newly crowned Miss America Madison Marsh, who is also an active duty Air Force lieutenant, and the grand marshal is DJ Khaled. If we do indeed have all those crashes at the end, someone absolutely has to give him a microphone and let him keep saying, “Another one!”

• “Did you know that one driver in this race is actually a Jedi?” No, it’s not Kaz Grala, who will start 26th and has a name that totally sounds like he learned how to race from Yoda and Mace Windu. It’s Blaney, who, on Thursday night walked away from a Mustafar-type situation as his Ford caught fire, then on Friday dropped in our official ESPN Star Wars podcast “Never Tell Me the Odds” to talk to me, Clinton Yates and Arda Öcal about his lifelong obsession with all things in a galaxy far, far away.

You can listen to it here. It’s worth downloading just to hear him tell the story of the time he met Daisy Ridley, aka Rey, when he was younger and very single and totally choked.


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