The Daytona 500 always promises surprises as NASCAR’s season opens with its biggest show

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 19: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 AdventHealth Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The only thing you can predict about the finish of the Daytona 500 is that it will be memorable.

The 66th running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday February 18th at 2:30 on FS1, MRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, the Great American Race, will officially open NASCAR’s long season of racing.

Though cars were on track for the first time in 2024 at the Clash at the Coliseum, racing at the Daytona International Speedway will be the first points race of the season. The two events have had a similar lead-up, however, with threats of rain for the weekend, don’t expect the same result. Though NASCAR made the unprecedented decision to move up the race by a day in LA, CupScene editor-in-chief Greg Engle told FOX35 Orlando not to expect an official points race to be moved up that much.

Odds via BetMGM
+1100 – Denny Hamlin
+1200 – Joey Logano
+1200 – Brad Keselowski
+1200 – Ryan Blaney
+1200 – Kyle Busch
+1500 – Chase Elliott
+1600 – Kyle Larson
+1700 – Christopher Bell
+2000 – Chris Buescher
+2000 – William Byron

Still early in the season, some questions remain. Chief among them is the cars. Ford revealed a new Dark Horse Mustang, Toyota has an all-new Camry body style, and Chevrolet made some changes to the front of its Camaro.

Those changes were visible when the cars took the track for the first time during Speedweeks, the lead-up to the race. The two Fords of Joey Logano and Michael McDowell swept the front row, only the second time a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy hasn’t led the field to green in the last decade and the first time any Chevrolet hasn’t been on the pole in longer. But the Toyotas were decidedly of the pace in qualifying.

Then in the Duel races to set every other qualifying position, Tyler Reddick and Christopher swept both for Toyota, showing that the brand had plenty of speed during racing on track. That’s been a pattern for Toyotas in the past few years, and three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin might tell you that it tends to work out pretty well.

Draft-heavy Daytona may not be the best gauge of the new cars as the field bunches together in a pack to take advantage of the aerodynamic drag, but each manufacturer looked strong.

Hamlin has the most wins of any driver in the field, and comes just off a win at the Clash. Besides him, Jimmie Johnson has one twice, and five other drivers – Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Austin Cindric, Michael McDowell, Austin Dillon, and Joey Logano have all managed to win.

There was no guarantee that Johnson would even make the 500 at all, since he entered a third car for his Legacy Motor Club team without a charter. He beat out JJ Yeley in his Duel race to earn his starting spot.

“I’ve never been in a position like this before,” Johnson said after the race. “I have such a greater appreciation for everyone that’s tried to race their way in.

“Hats off to J. J. Yeley. Put up a fight. Heck of a car. We were in the right place when the checkered fell.”

The other open cars in the field will be David Ragan, Kaz Grala, and Anthony Alfredo.

The other big change: the drivers. There are some new drivers in the Cup Series and some drivers in different cars. Daytona will be a critical chance to see if those drivers feel part of their new teams since it takes a group effort to communicate and draft to the front at Daytona.

Justin Haley, who’s left Kaulig Racing to now drive the No. 51 car for Rick Ware Racing, knows that very well. He’s been very good on superspeedways in the past – in fact, he got his first win in a rain-shortened summer Daytona race before he was even a full-time driver. But he’s tempered his expectations for his first superspeedway attempt with his new team.

“I think there are a lot of things that impact how well you can be at a superspeedway,” Haley explained. “The organization and how they work, the driver relationship with the spotter, and things like that.

“For me, the situation this year is completely different other than me being in the driver’s seat. I think we’ll have to see how it goes, but I don’t really know that there is something you can pinpoint. I enjoy superspeedway racing and I’ve been fortunate to do really well. I feel really confident about what we can accomplish.”

Other drivers in new situations to watch this season are Stewart-Haas Racing’s new duo of Josh Berry and Noah Gragson in the No. 4 and No. 10 Fords, Daniel Hemric in the Kaulig Racing No. 31, John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 42 for Legacy Motor Club, and Spire Motorsport’s new drivers Zane Smith in the No. 71 – with support from Trackhouse – and Carson Hocevar in the No. 77.

But at the Daytona 500, experience doesn’t count for much. There are plenty of past champions still going for their first win in NASCAR’s biggest race, including Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott.

As Christopher Bell, who hasn’t won the Daytona 500 himself either, explains, you just can’t predict the end of the race.

“Anyone that has not driven in a Cup Series superspeedway race, I don’t feel like they understand the difference between lap one, even lap 150 to lap 200,” Bell said. “The light switch goes off and the intensity just skyrockets, and guys just start pushing and shoving where you are not supposed to be pushing and shoving.

“The thing I hate about superspeedway racing is you never feel like you are in control in those moments when you are getting pushed around. It changes dramatically in those last couple of laps.”

Daytona opens one of the most competitive Xfinity seasons in years

It might not be the Daytona 500, but the Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona is still a huge race. And, with perhaps the most competitive Xfinity Series field in years, it might get bigger.

Unlike the Cup Series, Xfinity cars weren’t on track at the Coliseum, so Saturday’s race at 5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio truly is the first gauge for some new drivers and teams.

Nowhere is that more true than at Kaulig Racing. AJ Allmendinger will drop back down for a fulltime Xfinity Series campaign with the team where he’ll be hoping to keep knocking off wins, especially at the road courses. The team’s new driver Shane van Gisbergen might have something to say about that, though, after impressing with a win in his Cup Series debut at the Chicago Street Course. And Josh Williams, moving to the team this year, will be hoping to put up a fight too.

Other big moves in the series include Sammy Smith leaving Joe Gibbs for JR Motorsports and Sheldon Creed leaving Richard Childress for Joe Gibbs Racing alongside Chandler Smith.

Also making a big debut is Hailie Deegan, who’s been promoted from the Truck Series to the No. 15 AM Racing entry.

Nothing’s changing for the champion, though, and Cole Custer will be hoping that he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team can continue to perform.

“I think for us, we just hope to rebound and be strong competitors after winning the championship,” Custer said. “It’s all about how we can follow up last year. We’ve never been in this situation before, so we’re trying to figure out how we can go into this year and really be at that same level we just were.”

Getting those good results will be tough to do at a superspeedway where nothing’s truly predictable, but that just requires a different skillset.

“That’s what is so tough about Daytona and superspeedways,” Custer acknowledged. “Your plan is always changing. There can be like 15 situations that could happen, and no matter what situation, you have to know what to do when presented with each one.

“Honestly, you have to take these races lap-by-lap to see what kind of scenario you’re in and then adapt from there. You can’t have a solid plan going into a superspeedway because it’s always going to change and you’re forced to adapt to whatever comes your way.”

His teammate Riley Herbst enjoyed a breakout season last year, finally scoring his first win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’s looking forward to continuing the momentum.

“I’ve never been so excited to start a season in my career,” said Herbst. “That win at Vegas was everything.

“Then, to end the season on a high note with five straight top-fives and the most points scored of anyone in the Round of 8, when we weren’t even in the playoffs, it meant a lot. It showed everyone that we’re here and we can win. I have high hopes for 2024.”

With a lot of new big names in the field, there are a lot of questions remaining for the Xfinity Series this season. Daytona is the first chance to get some answers.

The Truck Series starts things off at Daytona

The Craftsman Truck Series is the first to compete over the weekend in Daytona, racing Friday night.

If last season’s championship finale race is anything to go by, expect some chaos in the Fresh from Florida 250 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Champion Ben Rhodes survived the chaos to earn his second title, and he’s ready to go for a third with his ThorSport team. He’s won the season opener at Daytona before and his Thorspor team always seems like the group to beat, but the competition is ready too.

Grant Enfinger, who finished just behind Rhodes to lose out on the championship, has moved to new team CR7 Motorsports and will be looking to do one better this year.

Both will once again have to face down Corey Heim, though, who dominated most of the season en route to the Championship 4 race at Phoenix.

A few new drivers include Cup Series veterans Ty Dillon and Timmy Hill alongside young drivers Layne Riggs and Thad Moffit.

One thing this race doesn’t have is a defending winner, with Zane Smith having moved up to the Cup Series with Spire Motorsports. That leaves an opening the rest of the field is more than happy to fill.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 19: The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a flyover prior to the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: DAYTONA 500
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Sunday, February 18
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $28,035,991
TV: FOX, 1 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 500 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 65),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 130), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: United Rentals 300
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Saturday, February 17
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $3,510,021
TV: FS1, 4 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (120 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 120)

Next Race: Fresh From Florida 250
The Place: Daytona International Speedway
The Date: Friday, February 16
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,058,336
TV: FS1, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250 miles (100 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 40), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 100)

Owen Johnson