Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The storylines are aplenty for the 62nd running of NASCAR’s Great American Race, the Daytona 500 and by the time cars grid at Daytona International Speedway for Sunday’s green flag (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), a new season’s worth of high aspirations will be on the line.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson will begin his farewell season with every intention of putting an exclamation point on his NASCAR Hall of Fame bound career; winning races and challenging for a record eighth title. His young teammate Alex Bowman will start on the Daytona 500 front row for the third consecutive season.
Joe Gibbs Racing, which won a modern era record 19 races in 2019 and a NASCAR Cup Series title with driver Kyle Busch, will be hoping to duplicate its unprecedented season. JGR driver Denny Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 champion.
A crowded and highly-decorated class of six rookies – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Quinn Houff – will have the opportunity to establish their place at the Cup Series level. And with established teams behind them, this group of young talent may well be a force to be reckoned with even in Sunday’s 2020 opener.
First-time Daytona 500 polesitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and his longtime crew chief Brian Pattie have started their relationship with a new team, JTG Daugherty Racing, in high-style. Both of Stenhouse’s previous Cup wins have come on big tracks like Daytona. The last polesitter to win the Daytona 500, however, was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Only two drivers entered in the race have won it more than once – Jimmie Johnson (2006 and 2013) and Denny Hamlin (2016 and 2019). Only three drivers in Daytona 500 history have won back-to-back. The last was Sterling Marlin in 1994-95.
For his part, Johnson has been upbeat about this first race in a season of last races.
“It’s not the end of the year, so I’m very excited,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “All the emotions are just fun and excitement for myself, my family and team. But comparing to my first year, I showed up here not knowing if I was a Cup driver or could fit in here or was going to have a career in this sport. Insecurity was maxed. Not self-esteem, but self-confidence was low.
“I not only had to prove to the world, but I’m still trying to prove to myself that I could do it at this level. Much different headspace [today].”
Two of the last three Daytona 500s have been last-lap pass victories – 2017 Kurt Busch and 2018 Austin Dillon both led only the last lap en route to their 500 trophy.
And all of this season-opening excitement will be under the watchful eye of United States President Donald Trump, who will be attending his first Daytona 500.
XFINITY IS READY FOR DAYTONA
With the racing “graduation” of several of the last two season’s championship contenders – including two-time Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek all to the NASCAR Cup Series this year – the 2020 Xfinity championship field has a distinctive new competitive look.
When it comes to Saturday’s season-opening NASCAR Racing Experience 300 (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), recent years have pointed to a new trend decidedly favoring the title contenders. Series regulars have won this race in five of the last six seasons, including the last three. No one’s earned back-to-back victories since Tony Stewart won four straight from 2008-2011.
Last year the top-five finishers were all championship competitors from winner Michael Annett to fifth-place Austin Cindric. Those two, along with Chase Briscoe, veteran Justin Allgaier and the talented youngster, Noah Gragson are all considered championship favorites this year.
This Daytona Speedweeks season opening race likely has been circled on Allgaier’s calendar, in particular. He finished runner-up to Annett last year by a mere .116-second. He, the 19-year old Cindric – a two-race winner in 2019, and Briscoe, 25, who collected his second Xfinity victory last year, are certainly title favorites for 2020. Highly-touted second-generation driver Harrison Burton makes his fulltime debut.
GANDER RV & OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES IS ALL SET FOR 2020
Only one time in its 20-year history has a driver won back-to-back NextEra Energy 250 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series races – Todd Bodine in 2008-09. And with the stacked field set for Friday night’s season-opener (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) defending winner Austin Hill faces a mighty challenge.
Three-time race winner Johnny Sauter will look to add his historic tally of trophies, but will face plenty of inspired competition from other series veterans such as newly-crowned three-time series champion Matt Crafton, Crafton’s teammate, the 2019 regular season champ Grant Enfinger and fellow title contender Stewart Friesen.
Last year’s Daytona race winner Hill made his first NASCAR Playoff appearance in 2019 and is expected to be a big player in this year’s title run, as is 2018 series champion Brett Moffitt.
Five drivers begin their Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaigns – Raphael Lessard, Zane Smith, Christian Eckes, Ty Majeski and Tanner Gray – and all of them bring stacked resumes to the series.
Former ARCA Menards Series champion Eckes won three pole positions and had three top-five finishes in eight starts for his Kyle Busch Motorsports team last year. Lessard is teaming with Eckes at series powerhouse KBM.
Majeski, a late mode champion, takes over the Niece Motorsports ride that Ross Chastain won three races in last season, qualifying for the championship. Gray comes to his fulltime NASCAR ride with the DGR-Crosley team transitioning from a hugely successful drag racing career where he hoisted the 2019 NHRA Pro Stock championship trophy.