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.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!