The season is now just days away and it all starts with the biggest race of the year, the Daytona 500. The 500 has been around since 1959 and there have been many memorable races over the years and some unpredictable results. Before the 500 is run, the teams must get through Speedweeks, which consists of the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, the Budweiser Duels and it culminates with the 56th running of the Great American Race.
After the 75-lap Sprint Unlimited exhibition race on Saturday night, teams now have an idea of what to expect in the Daytona 500 next week. The 500 is now more of a chess match than ever and itís going to come down to whoever makes the right move in the closing laps of the race.
Congratulations to Denny Hamlin on winning the Sprint Unlimited. Hamlin started on the pole and led 27 laps throughout the event. He won all three segments but it was far from a dominant show. The field was reduced to eight cars thanks to a nine-car pileup early in the second segment and other incidents throughout the race. Hamlin was able to make his way from the back of the pack and take the lead on a three-wide move on the backstretch with two laps to go. He won the season finale at Homestead last year and now made it back-to-back wins with his victory in the Sprint Unlimited.
Sunday was qualifying for the 500 and the session was historic and sentimental. Rookie Austin Dillon claimed the pole in his fourteenth start with a lap time of 45.914 seconds, just over 196 miles an hour. While the fact that Dillon is a rookie is one of the storylines surrounding him, the biggest storyline is Dillonís car number. Dillon is using the number 3, which was used by the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for the majority of his career. Richard Childress, Dillonís car owner and grandfather, was at his lowest point the last time the 3 was used, which was in the 2001 Daytona 500 when Earnhardt suffered his fatal accident. On Sunday, Childress was on a high point after the forty-eighth driver finished his run and the 3 was at the top of the speed charts.
Dillon and Martin Truex, Jr. will be leading the field to the green flag on Sunday but the rest of the starting lineup will be determined on Thursday evening in the Budweiser Duels. The drivers who qualified on Sunday in odd-numbered positions (1, 3, 5, etc.) will be in Race 1 and the drivers who qualified in even-numbered positions will be in Race 2. The results from the Duels will determine the starting lineup for Sundayís 500-mile race.
Fun Fact: Dale Jarrett is the last driver to win the championship in a previous year and start off his title defense with a win in the Daytona 500. He won the 1999 championship and the 2000 Daytona 500.
Most wins among active drivers: Jeff Gordon (6)
Defending Winner: Jimmie Johnson held off Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski and the rest of the field to win the 2013 Daytona 500.
Prediction: Any other year I would pick Tony Stewart, as he has won everything there is to win at Daytona under the sun except the 500. Heís won the summer 400-mile race four times, the Sprint Unlimited three times, and three qualifying races. However, Stewart is coming off a broken leg and the leg is 65% healed. Iím not doubting Stewartís passion and driving ability. I just donít know how his leg will hold up for 500 miles. Because of that, Iím picking Kyle Busch. He had a strong car last year before engine issues knocked him out late in the race. Busch has had strong runs in years past and he has also won the summer race once. He knows how to get to the front at Daytona and Talladega and if he can stay out of trouble, he will have a good chance to claim his first Daytona 500.