Austin Dillon and the No. 3 car may garner much of the attention, but a crop of seven rookie of the year candidates will be taking the green flag at approximately 1:19 p.m. ET at Daytona International Speedway Sunday. Some of their weeks have been just as wild as Dillon's, just not for the same reasons.
Austin Dillon gets through Duel with car intact
Austin Dillon escaped the Budweiser Duel with his car in one piece, allowing him to keep the No. 1 starting position for Sunday’s Daytona 500.
The spotlight on Dillon is twofold. His grandfather, Richard Childress, made the decision to bring the No. 3 car out of the unofficial retirement it had been in for the past 13 years, since Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The car has not participated in a race at NASCAR's highest level since then. For that reason alone Dillon's every move in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500 would be scrutinized. Then the 23-year-old had to go and add expectations to himself by qualifying with the fastest speed Feb. 16 with a 196.019 mph lap. Racing from the front in the first of two Budweiser Duel races Thursday, Dillon showed he belonged by leading the first 14 of 60 laps before dropping back a safe distance upon being passed. How he'll do with the pressure on and a pair of veteran Joe Gibbs Racing team members, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, starting directly around him remains to be seen. But without a doubt, all eyes will be watching.
Eyes were on Swan Racing teammates Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt, too, Wednesday during a wreck that ended practice after just 30 minutes. With cars going three wide around Turn 4, Joey Logano made contact with Matt Kenseth, then Paul Menard. Kligerman's car got collected in the wreck, eventually ending up skidding down the track on its roof. Kligerman, 23, was unharmed, but forced to a backup car. He finished 17th in his Budweiser Duel heat, but did earn a spot in the Daytona 500 grid based on owners points. The 22-year-old Whitt's car was damaged in the same accident, but he did not have the luxury of a backup car. His crew worked all night to repair the right side of the No. 26 car, and he finished 11th in his heat at the Duel.
"It was already hard for us to even get down here, let alone the things that happened to our team yesterday, not just our car, from Swan Energy losing two cars," Whitt said on Thursday. "... To be in the Daytona 500 is something I've dreamed of my whole life. Kind of a hard way to do it. But being out and back in with just a lap or so to go is pretty gnarly."
Kyle Larson, another rookie, will likely be remembered for his own incident at Daytona, this one during Nationwide competition in 2013. His car took flight during the DRIVE4COPD 300 before hitting the fence. Twenty-nine fans were injured, and the accident was so violent as to dislodge the engine from Larson's car.
Other rookies qualifying for the race include Alex Bowman, Michael Annett and Justin Algaier, while only rookie Ryan Truex failed to make the field.
Daytona 500 information:
Time: 1 p.m. ET (Green flag approximately 1:19 p.m.)
Place: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Television: FOX (prerace coverage begins at noon)
Radio: Motor Racing Network / SeriusXM Radio Channel 90