What to watch for in Daytona
This is almost the cliche "season is here" declaration - almost only because how big can a declaration be when so many have made it? But certainly the air is abuzz with anticipation as NASCAR kicks off its grueling schedule in its top three series here at Daytona International Speedway. Most people's "new year promise" wears off by mid-January, but for the few dozen NASCAR teams that same luster shines in the mid-February Florida sunshine.
A recurring focus on this electronic writing canvas is the plight of the handful of drivers from Georgia - there rarely has been as much anticipation in those ranks. As we talked about Sunday, Chase Elliott's tenure following Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy only became more tantalizing with his pole-winning speed for Sunday's Daytona 500. He looked sharp in Thursday night's Can-AM Duel race and will also pilot the No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevy in Saturday's Xfinity Series race. He definitely has a fighting chance to turn heads this weekend in both races.
Gordon, as you probably know, will have a new view from the broadcast booth with the Fox team through all of the Fox races this year. Once he finds his groove there, he will be extremely useful on each broadcast. No matter the circumstance, Gordon must feel strange when he sees someone else driving that legendary No. 24
Chris Cockrum will pilot the Advanced Communications Group/Remembering Captain Herb Emory Chevy for Rick Ware Racing in Saturday's NXS race. He says the racecar handled well in practice and his race team is locked in on points, so qualifying will not put too much pressure on him preceding the 3:30 p.m. race.
NASCAR's new charter system is in place and locks in 36 chartered teams in the Sprint Cup Series for every race. As part of this new deal, NASCAR reduced the field from 43 drivers to 40, marking the first such change since the late 1990s. There also is no past champion's provisional and, for some reason, NASCAR is no longer posting the money winnings for each driver. That certainly has to do with the new way the sport doles winnings to those chartered teams and also proves how little money really means to many of them. Hall of Fame announcer Ken Squier used to make a big deal about the race purse each broadcast - those times are no more. Neither the Xfinity or Truck Series have this charter system.
On the subject of rules changes in those series, NASCAR now has a Chase for both the NXS and Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS). The NXS will have a seven-race Chase and 12 drivers and the NCWTS' Chase will be seven races and eight competitors. A win in the preceding races pretty much guarantees a driver a Chase berth in each series and a Dash 4 Cash bonus win (only certain races and determined by heat races) in the NXS also does. This puts extra emphasis on the races this weekend, where dark horse drivers sometimes find the checkered flag. Ryan Reed won the NXS race last year. Former Bill Elliott Racing development driver John King won the NCWTS race in 2012. And though he was a title contender last year, very few knew who Tyler Reddick was before his NCWTS Daytona win last year. This could be big.
The racing this weekend should be be ground-pounding. Daytona's new $400 million "Daytona Rising" stadium setup will be a good setting for fans to take that in. The track boasts 101,500 seats that are bigger than before (and all sold out also), with many more restrooms and concession stands. Daytona International Speedway did tear down the back straightaway as attendance has decreased over the years. But this new setting at NASCAR's most famous track is certainly a game changer.
One thing not to watch this year is the ubiquitous "Will Tony Stewart finally win the 500?" story. He will not. A ruptured vertebrae in a crash in an ATV-type vehicle in a desert takes him out of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevy for months. Brian Vickers runs the car and starts 18th Sunday. Vickers returns to NASCAR after missing almost all of last year with blood clots (his third such absence in his career). Stewart announced this is his final season and it will in no way go like he wanted. Even if he returns this season, Stewart's plight to win the Daytona 500 is likely over.