Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Will The 2014 Daytona 500 Be One For The Ages?

Change is in the air throughout the world of NASCAR, and pretty much anyone who follows this sport is affected by it. Frontstretch.com is certainly no different. In an effort to give you, the readers, even deeper and more accurate previews of 2014 Sprint Cup Series races, this, the long-running “Four Burning Questions” column, will now run on Sunday morning, chock-filled with all of the latest news and information from the weekend leading up to that weekend’s big race. And what better way to kick off a new format than with the season-opening Daytona 500?

Martin Truex, Jr. and Austin Dillon swept the top two spots in Daytona qualifying. But will either one be even close to the front when this year’s checkered flag falls?
Martin Truex, Jr. and Austin Dillon swept the top two spots in Daytona qualifying. But will either one be even close to the front when this year’s checkered flag falls?

Martin Truex, Jr. and Austin Dillon swept the top two spots in Daytona qualifying. But will either one be even close to the front when this year’s checkered flag falls?

Indeed, today ladies and gentlemen, the stars and cars of the Sprint Cup Series will take to the high banks of Daytona International Speedway for the Great American Race. The 2014 edition of Speedweeks has been absolutely wild up to this point, and there is reason to believe that today’s Daytona 500 could be a special one. Why is that, you ask? I answer that and a few other key questions just a few clicks down the page.

1. Will this Daytona 500 be one for the ages?

Oh, what a difference a half-inch makes. All it took was the simple addition of a half-inch worth of spoiler to NASCAR’s Gen-6 cars to make the still-new machines run competitively in superspeedway configuration. Last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited served as testament to this fact, as the race was an utterly wild affair with plenty of three-wide racing and passing for the lead. Thursday’s Budweiser Duels were no different, as each race saw plenty of side-by-side action (well, maybe not so much in Duel 2, but there were some unique factors involved) along with a three-wide, photo finish in Duel 1.

What I’m trying to say, despite claims to the contrary is the fans do not have to worry about another snooze-inducing Daytona 500. The extra half-inch of spoiler has increased closing rates and heightened the benefits of side-drafting – both factors which help foster close, competitive superspeedway competition. In addition, the drivers all have a great deal more experience with the Gen-6 cars than they had a year ago and understand what it takes to make passes and put on a competitive race.

On paper, these factors should make for a very competitive Daytona 500.

2. Will tires and handling come into play today?

Anyone who watched the broadcast of Budweiser Duel 1 last Thursday can probably remember Darrell Waltrip going on and on about the supposed benefit of taking four tires. The funny part, of course was that taking four tires was nothing but a detriment to the drivers who decided to take on fresh rubber.

Here’s the deal: the track is far too smooth and the cars are going too slow for any tire wear to really be a factor in the race. That being said, this does not mean that handling will be a non-factor. In fact, today will almost-certainly be the most handling-intensive Daytona 500 since the 2010 edition of the race.

All throughout Thursday’s duels, drivers were issuing various complaints about their cars’ handling in a manner that hasn’t been seen since Daytona was repaved. This sudden rise in the importance of handling is due to a confluence of factors. The biggest one is the still-tiny spoiler used for the current superspeedway races that removes so much downforce from the cars that they become unstable in the draft. Since side-drafting has become the preferred method of making passes, drivers need incredibly stable and good-handling machines to execute them while maintaining position within a mostly two-lane “pack race.” Matt Kenseth’s incredible side-drafting maneuver used to win Duel 1 not only showcased the power and importance of the side-draft, it also showcased the importance of maneuverability, as most cars in the field did not have the lateral handling to accomplish that move.

All told, the rising importance of handling in superspeedway races will not only be a key item to watch in today’s race, but for the three other plate races this year as well.

3. Will the race be a wreckfest?

Huge accidents tend to take place at Daytona International Speedway. For anyone that has watched the sport for any length of time, that piece of information should not in any way be shocking. When you stack a group of crazed race car drivers in a pack where they can’t get away from each other, large wrecks are pretty much inevitable.

Unfortunately for Speedweeks 2014, those wrecks have been far more frequent than in years past. Due to the increased closing rate of this year’s cars, drivers are practically running over one another in the packs. It wouldn’t be a huge issue if bumpdrafting could be done safely, but due to the instability of the cars courtesy of the small rear spoiler, something as tiny as a minor tap (or even aero disturbance) can send a car careening off the racetrack. There’s also the issue of side-drafting occasionally causing the cars to “stall out,” as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tells it, creating an unexpected loss of speed that’s hard for the driver behind to judge.

A number of massive accidents have already happened thus far in the past week, with an especially harrowing one occurring in Wednesday’s Duel practice that sent Parker Kligerman’s car into the SAFER Barrier at a wild angle. There is quite literally nothing that can be done about these wrecks, and it is almost a certainty that at least one such “Big One” will break out today. The key for the drivers will be to manage the closing rates as well as they possibly can and be mindful of the dangers of bump-drafting.

If the drivers can do that (and it’s not likely with a Daytona 500 win on the line), then a Big One might be averted. Otherwise, we could be in for some carnage today.

4. Will JGR continue to dominate?

Flashback to the 2013 Daytona 500. It’s late in the race, and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth is leading a line of cars around the top of the track with teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch in tow. The JGR cars represent about two-thirds of the ones in the field who could even makes passes on this day, and they are rewarded handsomely by their late-race running position. Seemingly nothing can stop at least one of them from winning, until…

Surely, you all know how that story ends. Kenseth and Busch drop out of the race due to mechanical gremlins while Hamlin gets shuffled out of contention in a late-race scramble for position. For all of JGR’s dominance in the 2013 500, they come home empty-handed.

Back to this year’s version of Speedweeks, and it appears that the JGR machines are the cars to beat once again. In a much more pass-happy aero package, the JGR cars (especially those of Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, who collectively swept the Duels and the Sprint Unlimited) have been the most efficient passers and most prolific race leaders throughout Speedweeks 2014. Hamlin, in particular has just reached another level, winning two preliminary races and leading 50 of the 110 laps he has competed in during Speedweeks.

It’s always tough to predict a winner in superspeedway races, but to bet against the JGR cars today would be unwise in my view. All three drivers are racing with desire and have cars capable of dominating. Today’s winner will come out of the JGR stable: it’s just a matter of who.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Daytona 500:

Denny Hamlin becomes the first driver to sweep Speedweeks, capping off a dream start to the season with a Daytona 500 victory.

1. 11 – Denny Hamlin
2. 20 – Matt Kenseth
3. 88 – Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
4. 4 – Kevin Harvick
5. 18 – Kyle Busch
6. 2 – Brad Keselowski
7. 22 – Joey Logano
8. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
9. 17 – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
10. 1 – Jamie McMurray

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