What a difference a year makes for the Daytona 500 as the NASCAR Cup Series begins 2021 in transition. Last February, a sold-out crowd of 100,000 attended the race. Now, just over one year later, fan capacity is capped at 30,000 thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. NBA legend Michael Jordan is in the ownership ranks. African-American driver Bubba Wallace in contention to win his first race.
To make it all more interesting, top competition may come from his co-owner, Denny Hamlin, who's bidding for some stock car history of his own: three straight Daytona 500 wins. Hamlin's quest tops the list for five storylines to love heading into this Valentine's Day main event.
Can Hamlin pull off three Daytona 500s?
The Dan Marino of his generation has the most victories of any modern era NASCAR driver without a title (44). But the first to win three straight 500s would be a nice consolation prize on the resume.
"Ultimately, it is a skill game," Hamlin said in a Daytona press release this week. "[The 500] is won with the mind. I just want to be there with five to go, and then play the game."
Three-peats are nearly impossible in sports. Two drivers that have had the chance to accomplish that at Daytona -- Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin -- both blew an engine in their attempt, while "King" Richard Petty finished eight laps off the pace.
So far, no good for Hamlin, who ran out of fuel on the last lap of his qualifying Duel. If he's around, the speed is there, but going six-for-six without a big wreck sweeping you up is virtually unheard of these days.
Best friends in bad shape
Reigning NASCAR champion and Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott used up some cache this week with bestie Ryan Blaney. Their last-lap tangle in the exhibition Busch Clash cost them both a shot at a win and Daytona Speedweeks momentum, handing the victory to Kyle Busch
"I told [Elliott] if you're going to make a move like that, make sure you at least win the race," Blaney said afterwards. "Don't hand it to the third-place guy."
Will bad blood carry over? Both men played nice in their Duel, running fifth and sixth, and should contend for a race they want checked off the bucket list. Blaney, in particular, has had a career marked by near-misses and two of the last five wins on these superspeedways. Is there a way he'll get even with Elliott in crunch time?
Which set of Chevrolets will show up?
Alex Bowman and William Byron gave powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports a front-row sweep, the sixth time in seven years they've won the pole. But the New York Yankees of NASCAR struggled in the Duels, with Bowman suffering mechanical woes while Byron crashed out and will head to the rear with a backup car.
Chevrolet recovered, winning the second Duel race with No. 3 and Austin Dillon on the 20-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's
death in that car. But Dillon stood alone down the stretch -- their drafting acumen was a step behind both Ford and Toyota in a race dominated by manufacturer teamwork.
HMS new hire Kyle Larson, in particular, has been invisible this week along with misfires by veteran Kurt Busch and pack racing specialist Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Can Chevy snap a slump that's seen them win just one 500 (Dillon in 2018) the last six years?
The Bubba Wallace–Michael Jordan partnership begins
Think there's no pressure for Wallace in his first race behind the wheel of Jordan's car? Listen to what he had to say after finishing second in his Duel qualifying race, losing out to a killer move by Austin Dillon, who called it a "flick of the wheel," zig-zagging past him coming off turn 4 on the final lap.
"A lot of mistakes," Wallace said of a race he was in position to win. "Good debut but nothing to be really happy about for myself."
Looks like Jordan found a match for his competitive fire, right? But Wallace knows the opportunity in front of him. Three years ago, he earned his best career Cup finish in the Daytona 500 (second), the best run for an African-American in NASCAR since Wendell Scott in 1963 and cried in the press room over its significance. Two of his career top five finishes have been scored at this track.
Could you imagine if he gets over the hump and wins?
Another Cinderella story?
We're 10 years removed from one of the biggest Daytona upsets in history: 20-year-old Trevor Bayne delivering in just his second career Cup start. Can another longshot deliver?
Let's start with the man driving Bayne's former car, Matt DiBenedetto (William Hill Sportsbook lists him at 35/1.) He led a race-high 49 laps two years ago and could deliver Wood Brothers career win No. 100 while breaking a 0-for-212 career NASCAR winless streak of his own.
Then, there's Ryan Newman (40/1 odds), the 2008 Daytona 500 winner whose fiery crash across the finish line at last year's race caused another round of NASCAR safety upgrades.
"We will always continue to learn from those that we lose and those that we don’t lose, as long as we keep focused on the things that we need to to increase our level of safety,” said Newman, who's one of the most vocal safety advocates in the garage. https://t.co/OBFYcsO3tH— Michelle R. Martinelli (@MMartinelli4) February 11, 2021
The sport held its collective breath, but Newman has since made a full recovery. With 2021 potentially his last full-time year in the Cup Series, can he find redemption in Daytona victory lane?