The Sprint Unlimited? Check. Daytona 500 Qualifying? Finished. The Budweiser Duels? In the books. That leaves only one Cup race remaining in Speedweeks… the sport’s Super Bowl, Sunday’s Daytona 500.
I shouldn’t have to tell you why this race is so important; the event speaks for itself. It is the most prestigious event in modern-day American motorsports, and nothing short of a few million dollars and a Chase bid is on the line for the winner. (Don’t think they’ve forgotten about the second part. Just ask rookie Cup crew chief Greg Ives, who joked, “Did we make the Chase?” the second he entered his Budweiser Duel-winning press conference with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) The sport is carrying a boatload of momentum from the end of last season into Sunday’s race, meaning Daytona will be taking on added significance as NASCAR looks to capitalize on newfound media attention. Sunday is positioned to be a big day for the sport, no matter how you look at it.
Hyperbole aside, the true beginning of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is finally here, and we have a lot to cover, so let’s get started.
- Will the sport capitalize on its recent momentum with a scintillating race?
Whether you liked the new Chase format or not, it is difficult to argue at this point that the sport’s new-look postseason didn’t inject a great deal of life into NASCAR. After years of gradual decline in overall popularity, stock car racing surged back into the mainstream consciousness last fall courtesy of what may very well have been the most dramatic Chase for the Cup of all time. Now, three months later, NASCAR is the talk of the sports business world, as everyone from Forbes to ESPN this week has pontificated on its “dramatic comeback” over the past few months.
This theory, of course, is all subjective. Industry sources have indeed been bullish, however, with most claiming that the sport is in the best shape it has been since the recession in terms of both financial stability and popularity. That’s all well and good, and mostly true, but it will all be for naught if the race is a stinker. You see, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s annual opportunity to “show the world what it’s got.” An exciting and dramatic Daytona 500 almost always helps bolster NASCAR’s overall health, while a boring or controversial one can easily torpedo any momentum the sport carries into the race. It is a double-edged sword, to be sure.
Clearly, you can see why this weekend’s race is so important. With everyone in the sports business industry proclaiming that NASCAR is “back,” Sunday stands as NASCAR’s chance to show all of the curious new eyeballs (or old ones coming back to the sport) that have heard about the hype that the “new NASCAR” is, in fact, the real deal. That means that the sport needs the race to be exciting and devoid of controversy in order to capitalize on all of the so-called momentum it has built in recent months.
If the wildly exciting Sprint Unlimited is any indication, I think the race can live up to its lofty pageantry, but we’ll just have to wait and see. There is no doubt, however, that the 2015 Daytona 500 could be a watershed moment for the sport.
- Will Sunday’s weather conditions affect the complexion of the race?
So far throughout Speedweeks, Daytona’s surface has been ultra-cool and ultra-grippy due to the cold temperatures affecting Florida over the past week. Not a single race or practice session has been contested on a hot and slick track. Why is this important, you may ask? Because the weather for Sunday in Daytona is projected to be hot and sunny.
Guess what that means? The setups the teams have been using up to this point throughout Speedweeks are essentially going to be useless Sunday. Handling is going to be at a premium throughout the race as the drivers slip and slide on the hot Daytona track surface. Given the fact that the drivers haven’t dealt with such conditions at any point during Speedweeks thus far, it’s fair to say that the temperature change will wind up having a huge impact on the race.
Tony Stewart agreed with that sentiment in a post-Duel interview with NBC Sports. ““I think (the hot weather) will make the track slicker. It’ll definitely be better,” said Stewart. “We’re actually going to have to get cars to handle. That’s always kind of been what has made Daytona fun is that you had to make your cars drive good.’’
So with handling and tire wear firmly in the mix for Sunday’s race, expect to see a different array of faces at the front of the field and unique strategies for getting there, especially in comparison to what we’ve seen throughout Speedweeks.
- Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. win back to back 500s?
After taking a convincing victory in last night’s Duel race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. enters this Sunday as an undisputed favorite to take home the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Since the introduction of the Gen-6 race car in 2013, Junior has been an absolute monster on restrictor plate race tracks, consistently delivering performances reminiscent of his best days with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in the early 2000s.
Indeed, Earnhardt has been the class of the field up to this point in Speedweeks. Had it not been for an overheating issue in the Sprint Unlimited, he likely would have won that race in addition to his victory in Thursday night’s Duel. Earnhardt has simply been at the top of his game all week long, and appears to have one of the two or three best cars in the field. Most importantly, he’s as relaxed and confident as any time since taking his Hendrick Motorsports ride in 2008, having already built some chemistry with new crew chief Greg Ives. Earnhardt was so relaxed, in fact he spent his post-victory time sitting down in public and rooting on Martin Truex, Jr. in the media center. If that’s not a warning shot to the rest of the field, well, I’m not sure what is.
I firmly believe Earnhardt has what it takes to be the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin accomplished the feat back in 1995. The only drivers that seem to be on his level right now are the JGR and Hendrick teams; in the second Duel, those two organizations combined to lead all but one lap. It’s a tough competition within that group, for sure, but if Earnhardt puts on another drafting clinic like he did in last night’s Duel, he will be very tough to beat. Should he pull it off, it would perhaps be an even bigger story than that of his breakthrough win in this race last year.
- Do the underdogs have a real chance to make something happen?
Every time we go to a restrictor plate track, you get a bunch of jackwagons that come out and predict that so-and-so underdog driver is going to win the race. To the uninitiated eye, underdogs appear to be sexy picks heading into plate races, so their ignorance can be forgiven. But I hate to break it to those of you pulling for a Johnny Sauter or Reed Sorenson victory on Sunday; it’s just not going to happen.
Here’s the deal: the 2015 evolution of the current superspeedway aero package strongly favors the best teams and the best drivers. The results of Speedweeks thus far have backed that notion up. With every passing superspeedway race under this package, handling becomes a bit more important, the draft becomes a bit more nuanced and skill-intensive, meaning overall driver skill and team strength take greater precedence over the sort of all-out luck that used to reward underdog teams during the tandem/push-drafting era. In other words, this race is going to be won by a big-money team, paired with a big-money driver and a crew that won’t make mistakes on pit road. In fact, most plate races are usually won by the most skilled drivers and teams. People just overly glorify the rare occasions when underdogs do win these races and expect a similar outcome every time. Keep that in mind when you make your picks this weekend.
All told, with the sort of all-out dominance that the Hendrick and JGR teams have demonstrated, the underdog teams will need an awful lot of luck and weird circumstances to occur in order to overcome the speed gulf that they will face on Sunday.
Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 Daytona 500:
This year on Four Burning Questions, I will be sharing my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch.com Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!
- Matt Kenseth ($26.25) – One of two “no-brainer” picks for this week, he’s led more laps in the preliminary races than any other driver. He’s about as good of an anchor pick as you can get.
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ($26.75) – Here’s no-brainer pick #2. He won his Budweiser Duel, led a bunch of laps in the Unlimited, and reportedly has the fastest car in the field. Not hard to see why he needs to be in your lineup.
- Martin Truex, Jr. ($17.00) – As far as value picks go, look no further than Truex. Not known for his plate racing prowess, Truex has delivered the best Speedweeks of his NASCAR career thus far, nearly winning both the Unlimited and his Duel race. He’s not an underdog, he’s a bona fide contender this week for a dirt cheap price.
- Tony Stewart ($22.00) – Stewart comes into this race severely undervalued due to his lackluster 2014 season, but make no mistake, Stewart will be a force on Sunday. No driver has been more aggressive in Speedweeks thus far, and he has enough past plate racing clout to warrant consideration on his own. It’s hard to fathom Stewart being an “under-the-radar” driver, but that’s exactly what he is this week. Don’t miss out on this value.
- Landon Cassill ($7.50) – Cassill will not win the race on Sunday, but he is unquestionably the most talented driver in underfunded equipment. At a dirt cheap $7.50, you get a highly underrated drafter who has what it takes to push a car that probably doesn’t belong up front to a top-10 finish.