Now that the Advanced Auto Parts Clash and the Can-Am Duels are out of the way, it’s time to get down to real racing with more on the line than just bragging rights and a few bonus points.
Daytona International Speedway, which on Sunday will host the 59th running of the Daytona 500, is the ultimate proving ground for NASCAR drivers. Over the course of 500 laps, legacies are cemented, hearts are broken and stars are born. This year’s 500 is loaded with champions, fresh faces and one driver who’s about to call it a career.
At the end of the day, some drivers seemingly are made for Daytona and some really good drivers just can’t seem get over the hump at the Great American Race. Here are the drivers you need to look out for on Sunday.
Keselowski still is searching for his first 500 victory, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time before he pulls it off. The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford has won more plate races than any driver since he began racing full-time on the Cup level in 2009, including two plate-race victories last season.
“(Keselowski’s) probably the best right now” on restrictor-plate tracks, Austin Dillon said at Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day, via Yahoo! Sports. “There’s three guys right now that do a really good job of defending a lead and holding a lead. There’s Denny (Hamlin), Brad and Joey (Logano). They’re very aggressive side-drafters.”
Keselowski’s teammate Logano is no slouch at plate races either and together the two are nearly unstoppable. Since 2015, Keselowski and Logano have combined to win four of the last eight points-paying plate races, including a Daytona 500 victory for Logano in 2015.
In what could be a sign of things to come, the No. 22 prevailed at Saturday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, thanks to a last-lap wreck between Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The pilot of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy already has two 500 victories to his name, but a win at this year’s race likely would be one of the sweetest victories of his career. After missing the final 18 races of last season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will start on the front row Sunday.
Earnhardt’s return is huge for NASCAR, and his performance Sunday will be closely watched by those in the NASCAR world.
A 32-year NASCAR Cup career that includes 784 races and four victories — including two Daytona 500 wins — will come to an end Sunday, as Michael Waltrip will drive his final race. It will be Waltrip’s 30th time competing in the 500, and a victory behind the wheel of the No. 15 Premium Motorsports Toyota sure would be a fitting send off.
If Hamlin wins Sunday, he’d be the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Martin in 1994 and 1995. Hamlin’s victory last year was one of the most thrilling finishes in recent NASCAR history, but a repeat for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driver certainly won’t be easy.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images