Led by Austin Dillon and the iconic No. 3 car, 43 drivers will take to Daytona International Speedway Sunday for the start of the Daytona 500. And while the initial attention may be on the return of the 3 to the highest level of NASCAR following the death of Dale Earnhardt at this very track, in this very race, in 2001, the drivers initially lined up on in the second row may be the ones who have the best shot to win NASCAR's season-opening race.
Winners of the Budweiser Duel races on Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin have both already had pretty good Speedweeks in Florida. Hamlin dominated the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race on Feb. 15 and then led the final 23 laps of the second Duel. In the earlier qualifying race, Kenseth led 31 of 60 laps before holding off a late challenge from Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne at the end.
Continuing success at Daytona would be just more of the same for Kenseth, winner of the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500s. He had an opportunity to add a third Harley J. Earl trophy to his collection in 2013 before JGR's engine issues did him in. Kenseth led the most laps of any driver, 86, leading as late as the 149th lap of the 200-lap race when his engine gave out. Hamlin, who finished 14th, was the only JGR car to make it through the entire race, as Kyle Busch's day ended just two laps later than Kenseth's. That made for a disappointing day after the three cars had been running 1-2-3 with a little more than a quarter of the race to go.
A number of drivers will be starting at the back with him, including Martin Truex Jr., who was slated to be on the outside pole Sunday before being wrecked in a major crash at the end of the second Budweiser Duel qualifier. Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer (whose car briefly barrel-rolled in the wreck), David Ragan and Michael Waltrip will also be forced to the rear in backup cars.
Harvick, too, will be near the rear after the track bar on his car failed the post-race inspection. Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte must drop back due to unauthorized engine changes.
The Daytona 500 will be televised on Fox at 1 p.m. ET Sunday, with the green flag expected to wave about 1:19 p.m. Prerace coverage begins at noon.
2014 Daytona 500 starting lineup
|9||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|34||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|