DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The popular expression used to illustrate the importance of the Daytona 500 is that it's the Super Bowl of racing. While that's an apt description, the uniqueness of the Great American Race is unmatched in any other sport: NASCAR begins its season with its marquee event.
As the green flag falls on the 56th edition of the Daytona 500 Sunday, here are the key storylines you need to follow during Sunday's race at Daytona International Speedway.
Can Johnson go back-to-back?
If Jimmie Johnson is to become the first repeat Daytona 500 winner since Sterling Marlin (1994-95), it's going to require strategy and plenty of patience. Johnson will be starting at the rear of the field after wrecking in the Duel qualifier on Thursday, necessitating a change to backup car. It was his second wreck of Speedweeks and the defending Sprint Cup champion is now behind the wheel of his third car in as many races this week.
Johnson is undeterred, however. He says the car he'll drive Sunday has proven to be faster than the original, and he is confident he can work his way to the front by race end.
Earnhardt's plan of attack
Now 10 years since his only Daytona 500 victory, NASCAR's most popular driver has stressed the importance of making a push for the lead sooner and not later. Three of the last four years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has surged in the closing laps only to come up short and finish second.
"You need to be leading the race," he said. "I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else."
The question is , will the No. 88 be strong enough to be in the lead with the checkered flag in sight? Although he's had moments in both preliminary races he's run, Earnhardt failed to be a player late in either race. He crashed out of the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and then backslid in his Duel after leading early.
To finish first one must first finish
With speeds nearly eclipsing 200 mph and drivers in tight packs inches apart, the margin of error is razor thin at Daytona. The key to winning the 500 isn't necessarily having a fast car, but having a car that makes it to the finish, as races at Daytona often become more about preservation than anything else.
A new rules package featuring an enlarged spoiler has challenged drivers and further compounds the belief this year's Daytona 500 will center more on attrition than anything else. Because of the increased closing rates, an all too common occurrence this week is for a driver to attempt to slide in front of a competitor only to clip the nose of the car behind him. This was the catalyst for sizeable wrecks in the Sprint Unlimited and in Wednesday practice. And this will most likely occur again Sunday, only with more cars involved and increased mayhem.
Is it better to be the hunter or the hunted?
In the previous two editions of the Daytona 500, being the leader with five laps to go has proven beneficial to the man in front, as Matt Kenseth and Johnson both firmly held their positions. The evidence suggests this hasn't changed.
Being in the lead gives a driver a distinct advantage to control the momentum of the lanes formed behind him. Whether it's the top or bottom groove due to the increase in side drafting, though some contend side-drafting will increase passing.
"It's like putting the brakes on," said Kevin Harvick, explaining the concept of side-drafting. "When you go to go by a car basically the front air off the car that you are passing packs up against your rear spoiler and just slows the car down. It's very effective with this package and made for an exciting finish tonight."
But there is some hope that a last-lap slingshot pass is still possible at Daytona. Although Kenseth and Denny Hamlim each led the final 22 and 23 laps, respectively, in their Duel, each was challenged to maintain their lead -- particularly Kenseth, who raced Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne three-wide across the finish line.
Austin Dillon is the fifth rookie to win the pole for the Daytona 500 following Loy Allen Jr. (1994), Mike Skinner (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2002) and Danica Patrick (2013). Overall there are seven Rookie of the Year contenders competing Sunday. An eighth, Ryan Truex, failed to qualify.
Nine former Daytona 500 champions will take the green flag Sunday: Johnson (2006, 2013), Kenseth (2009, 2012), Trevor Bayne (2011), Jamie McMurray (2010), Ryan Newman (2008), Harvick (2007), Jeff Gordon (1997, 1999, 2005), Earnhardt (2004), and Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003).
Sunday is Terry Labonte's final Daytona 500 start. The two-time Cup champion has competed in 32 editions of the Great American Race, with a best finish of second (three times).
- Patrick, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte have to drop to the rear of the field after making unapproved engine changes. In backup cars and having to forfeit their starting positions: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, McMurray, Johnson and Waltrip.
1) Matt Kenseth
Due to his pair of Daytona 500 victories and his prowess in restrictor-plate races (he also won at Talladega in 2012, and led the most laps in this race last year), Kenseth gets the edge over Hamlin, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. Yes, he's been the instigator in a couple of wrecks this week, but Kenseth deserves the benefit of the doubt.
2) Denny Hamlin
Still seeking his first points-paying victory at Daytona, Hamlin following his dominance throughout week has a case for being the clear favorite Sunday. One thing to watch is how he handles himself in heavy traffic, an issue he hasn't had to really face thus far.
3) Kevin Harvick
As he typically is, Harvick is on his game at Daytona. There are few if any who navigate the draft better than him, and his gauge of when to make a move and when to lay back is precise. Harvick got swept up in a wreck not of his doing last year, and if he can avoid that again he will have a major say in the outcome.