The most anticipated day in NASCAR has arrived. The 58th Annual Daytona 500 will go green on Sunday as 40 competitors chase a career defining victory. It’s 200 grueling laps with the promise of a single, monumental moment for one team.
Every year, the “Great American Race” is special. However, the magnitude of the event seems to grow exponentially with each passing season. And 2016 may be the most compelling running yet.
Through Speedweeks so far, the competition has been fierce. It began with last Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited as drivers made many moves in the draft that left fans holding their breath. The intense battle towards the finish highlighted the event as it was a battle between Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.
The slim advantage exchanged hands each lap. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth took the lead for a moment only to be passed seconds later by either Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski. Their success in the race set the tone for Speedweeks as it seemed as the remaining events would play out as a battle between the ultra fast, competitive teams.
In the Can-Am Duel races on Thursday night, the number of strong and stellar cars became evident. Many different drivers made daring moves as they experimented in the draft and hunted the lead. This led to numerous blocks being thrown and provided a preview of what’s to come on Sunday.
With so many drivers competing in strong cars, it’s anyone’s game in the Daytona 500. This comes despite the returning importance of track position and needing raw speed. In recent years, running up front throughout the day has reemerged as a key to victory. While the draft remains unpredictable, now it is much harder to make up ground in a short amount of time.
Rather than hang back and hope to avoid a crash, competitors must fight to run up front. Lead changes aren’t as common now as they were five years ago and this changes a driver’s approach. They have to be near the front of the pack with around 50 laps to go if they have any hope of capturing the victory.
While a crash could still occur and take out some of the front runners, that’s not a given. This new mentality forces a much more intense atmosphere as drivers need to make moves earlier than ever before to put themselves in position to capture the most prestigious prize in NASCAR.
This has revived how restrictor plate racing “used to be back in 2001 to 2005,” according to Dale Earnhardt Jr. During the previous era, fans fell in love with this style of competition because it brought out the best in competitors.
It’s no longer all about luck but remains a combination involving luck, as well as a balance between ability and speed. On Sunday, the winner won’t have taken the checkered flag by chance. They will have earned it from the drop of the green flag as they worked the draft and strategy to perfection.
Having to put together these varying aspects is what makes the Daytona 500 such a challenge. Competitors need to take advantage of the opportunities throughout the race to put themselves in position late that allows their determination to prevail.
When 40 drivers use this approach to chase the same goal, it creates the compelling atmosphere of the Daytona 500. Add in the fascinating storylines of an optimistic new season and thrilling Speedwees, and this leads us to where we are right now.
This day. This race. This opportunity.
As the nerves increase as the race approaches, the magnitude of this day becomes clear. And through each of these factors, it exemplifies why this season opener is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in the history of the Daytona 500.
By Jason Schultz / @NASCARJason
Photo Credit: Sean Gardner