Column: Previewing NASCAR’s Opening Weekend For 2019

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – For all the lifelong aspiration, months of preparation, the week-long hype of competition, the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has been a thrilling final lap pass for the victory in recent years. Predicting a winner is no easy task.

The last two Daytona 500 champions – Kurt Busch in 2017 and Austin Dillon in 2018 – claimed the sport’s most prestigious trophy on a last lap pass – the only lap they led on the day.

No driver has won back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95 and only three drivers (also Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough) have ever accomplished the feat. The last time a polesitter won the race was Dale Jarrett in 2000. The last three races have been won by three different manufacturers.

“That’s pretty impressive only three guys have been able do it back-to-back, and I’d love to be a fourth,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said this week. “That would be very cool. It seems like a hard thing to do. This place is not easy to win at. That’s why it’s so special, and so many people haven’t won here. It’s just this place, everything has got to line up. Everything has got to line up just perfectly for you to go to Victory Lane, and that’s what it’s all about.”

In the last 15 years, only two drivers have won multiple Daytona 500s – Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004 and 2014) and Jimmie Johnson (2006 and 2013).

And there is a list that includes several of the sport’s very best that are still looking for their first 500 trophy.

Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion, is winless in 14 Daytona 500 tries. Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup champ is 0-for-14 as is popular perennial championship contender Clint Bowyer.

Truex came the closest – finishing .01-second behind Denny Hamlin in a 2016 photo finish. He will be making his first start for Joe Gibbs Racing this year – moving there from the Furniture Row Racing team where he won his championship.

“I guess it can be frustrating, but anything that big is not easy to get,” Truex said. “It’s just the way it is. You look at Dale Earnhardt, it took him 17 tries or something – 20. He won the most races at Daytona of anyone ever and he hadn’t won the Daytona 500. That just shows how hard it is to win. I don’t think that’s changed over the years.

“You look like a guy like Trevor Bayne – he came out of nowhere and won the thing and never won any other races. It’s one of those races where crazy things tend to happen. Huge stories tend to come out of it and that’s part of the reasons why it’s such a big deal.”

XFINITY SERIES READYS FOR DAYTONA

It will be hard to top the dramatic photo finish of 2018 with eventual series champion Tyler Reddick edging retiring veteran Elliott Sadler to the checkered flag. But the annual NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener has always proven itself worthy of the hype and interest.

Favorites such as Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier and defending series champion Tyler Reddick will battle up-and-comers such as Austin Cindric and series’ newcomer Noah Gragson for the first bragging rights toward a championship trophy. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski are entered this weekend as well.

Since an amazing run of four consecutive wins from now-retired Tony Stewart from 2008-2011, there haven’t been any back-to-back Daytona winners and the race has proven itself one of the most exciting events of the whole race calendar.

TRUCK SERIES WELCOMES GANDER OUTDOORS

The kickoff race to the big NASCAR points racing weekend begins with what is traditionally a close-quartered action-packed NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series opener. Veteran Johnny Sauter is the defending winner and has victories in two of the last three years. Rookie sensation Kaz Grala grabbed a win in 2017 earning national attention.

Chevrolet owns the last three Daytona trophies – and Toyota won eight consecutively from 2007 (Jack Sprague) to 2014 (Kyle Busch).

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