By Garrett Jones
If you pull a random person of the street and ask them to name a single NASCAR event, what do you think they’d come up with?
Some might mistakenly answer with the Indianapolis 500, the premier event of American IndyCar racing. Understandably so; the lines between each racing league blur for the untrained eye. Maybe you’ll get a “Talladega” or a “Bristol” sprinkled in there; but the results would consistent among those four.
But for those with any knowledge of the sport, it’s well known that the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway is the pinnacle of American stock car auto racing.
Sunday’s race on the Florida coast will be the 61st running of the even that has produced no shortage of dramatics over its storied history.
Who could forget some of the sport’s most successful drivers like Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip acheiveing the sweet release of a win on the biggest stage after years of trying. Some of the sports biggest legends have thrived at the superspeedway. Richard Petty won six times. Cale Yarborough four, Jeff Gordon three.
Perhaps it’s most remembered moment is its most somber. Earnhardt Sr., a seven-time champion at the sport’s highest level, arguably the sport’s most popular driver of all time, and one of the the most intimidating athletes ever, died in a last-lap crash in February 2001.
His death had an immeasurable positive impact, nonetheless restrictions vastly increased soon after- many attribute the shock of the crash as the guide to the sport being “as safe as it’s ever been.”
Even in the past decade-plus, amid enhanced safety measures, constant rule changes, retirements of key stars, and declining interest in the 21st century, the 500 has seen some of its most fascinating moments and surprise winners.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first 500 in dramatic fashion in 2004, just three years after the death of his father on the same hollowed track. Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin finished side-by-side at the finish line in what was the closest finish in race history in 2007- only to be surpassed by Denny Hamlin in 2016, who edged out Martin Truex Jr. quite literally, by a nose.
Trevor Bayne and Austin Dillon won in 2011 and 2018, respectively. Each driver boasts less than three career wins; Bayne is now out of the sport’s top league and that win is the only of his career.
The past two races have been entertaining; but the sport is under more scrutiny than ever. NASCAR embarked on a brisk rule changes intending to reach a younger, larger audience. This included the implementation of “Stage racing,” designed to give races three breaks in the action, allow drivers to make pit stops, and create more commercial breaks for TV broadcasts.
NASCAR also introduced a heavily-scrutinized downforce package, which affects passing and drafting ability on the track. With top speeds reaching 190+ MPH, the more downforce, the better. Many speculate the current specifications- adjusted by the chasis in each stock car- will make for a poor product Sunday.
Its marketing also included the infamous “Daytona Day” commercial campaign, which was met with fiery scrutiny from loyal fans after the sport ignored its base demographics to pursue it’s younger viewer. Essentially, commercials and marketing materials depicted and presented viewing parties and mass interest of the event, which is simply and delusion of grandeur. NASCAR’s strength has always been its passionate niche diehards; it will never be a mass-appealing product.
All of that being said, Sunday’s running has loads of intrigue.
21-year-old William Byron starts on the poll. It will be the fourth straight year that a Hendrick Motor Sports Chevrolet will lead the field to green.
Joey Logano looks to get his cup defense started on the right note after capturing his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship last year. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson looks to rebound after a winless 2019 season.
As per usual “Silly season,” (essentially, NASCAR free agency) brought led a variety of old faces new places. Third-year sensation and former Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez moves to the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. 2018 champion Martin Truex Jr. takes his spot at Joe Gibbs racing in the No. 19 Toyota.
Kurt Busch moves from the 41 to join Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 1 Chevrolet. 2008 race winner and consistent finisher Ryan Newman looks to jolt Roush-Fenway Racing back onto the map as he moves to the No. 6 Ford.
Former cup series champions and consistent Daytona strugglers Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski are still chasing that elusive first Daytona 500 win. Is 2019 the year for a breakthrough?
No matter where you turn, Sunday’s race doesn’t fail to offer a mix of historic pageantry, and captivating storylines in 2019. And, despite unpopular specifications, puzzling rule changes, and mixed messages from NASCAR’s marketing department, the 2019 Daytona 500 is worth watching.