The time has come to put a bow on the NASCAR offseason and to kickstart the 2021 NASCAR season. The annual Busch Clash kicks off the upcoming year but this year it will provide a little twist. This will be a vastly different version of Speedweeks than we’ve ever seen.
Instead of racing the Clash on the oval like they always have every year since the races’ inception in 1979 on the oval, they’ll do so on the road course on Tuesday night.
An under the lights road course race to kick off the campaign. Then, the Speedweeks action moves to the oval for Daytona 500 qualifying on Wednesday. Following that are the Duels on Thursday night, the Camping World Truck Series season opener on Friday night, the ARCA and Xfinity Series openers on a doubleheader on Saturday only to see the 63rd annual Daytona 500 wrap it all up on Valentine’s Day.
Then, the drivers and teams will stay around for another week as all three national divisions will race on the road course in points paying races the weekend after. This was a new event added to the 2021 schedule as Fontana was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic and they needed a replacement.
Homestead was willing to move back a week so this race could be added and the teams can just stay put.
That’s wild enough. But, so are these big storylines entering Speedweeks.
Different Vibe This Year
This year will feel vastly different in Daytona than any other. The usual build up is here. That’s natural. But, the crowd will be wildly smaller. That’s because of the ongoing pandemic which has forced track and series officials to scale down the allotted attendance for this year’s race. This year will see far less people than the recent sell out crowds.
Plus, just look at how much anticipation that occurred just one year ago. The anticipation was building more and more as Daytona Speedweeks went on. You had the Friday night thrilling NASCAR Truck Series season opener, which ended on a photo finish by the way (.010 seconds), the closest in the race’s history, which was witnessed by an estimated crowd in excess of 25k.
Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener was run in front of nearly 50k in attendance. That left the Daytona 500 brewing bigger and bigger.
First, there was the rumor that President Donald Trump would be attending the race in some capacity. That got the anticipation growing bigger and bigger. Then, it was later confirmed on Thursday, the day of the Duels, that he would in fact be here with the First Lady. On top of that, the race was announced a sell out in which all of the 101,500 grandstand seats being sold out for the fifth straight year then too. But, throw in all the infield camping too and you get what Daytona International Speedway officials said was the largest crowd here in years.
That’s not all the good news either.
The purse would be just shy of $25 million, the largest in the history of the 63 year event as well.
A photo finish on Friday night, bigger and bigger crowds as Speedweeks go on, a sell out — the largest attended race here at Daytona in years, the largest purse in the history of this race and the President coming here and giving the command.
Well, that anticipation not only grew bigger here in Daytona, but as well as the nation too. The TV ratings saw almost 11-million people tuned in for just 20 laps that were able to run to completion before rain set in and postponed the rest of the race to Monday afternoon.
The 10.9-million viewers were up 19-percent for the entire race run in 2018 (9.1-million) and up over 32-percent from the lead in (11.1-million) in the 2019 race.
The Busch Clash viewership was also up 7-percent from 2019 race too and the highest watched Clash on FS1 since 2014.
All that momentum from a year ago will lead to a somewhat somber Daytona 500 with a smaller crowd and with all that’s going on around the country this year compared to last.
Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin Team Up
Denny Hamlin is a three-time Daytona 500 champion. He’s won the last two in fact. Now, the defending winner is back in his No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing but also has another venture on his plate for 2021 too – co owner.
Hamlin, is part of a new team in NASCAR and that’s the one between he and NBA legend Michael Jordan. That’s right, you have the two time defending Daytona 500 champion racing again but also having a car in the field co owned by Michael Jordan. Driving that car is Bubba Wallace as Wallace is the lone African American driver in the field.
Wallace, finished runner-up in the 2018 race with Richard Petty Motorsports. Now, this iconic group will debut together during Speedweeks.
How fitting would it be if Wallace and Kyle Larson are on the front row for Sunday’s race?
Can Hamlin 3-Peat?
Denny Hamlin is obviously on a nice run here in Daytona. But, can he keep it going? Hamlin, did a rare feat by winning back-to-back Daytona 500’s last year. He became just the fourth driver to ever win this race in back-to-back years. Richard Petty did it in 1973 and 1974. Cale Yarborough did it in 1983 and 1984. Sterling Marlin was the last to do so before Hamlin in 1994 and again in 1995. Now, can he be the first though to win three straight?
No one has ever done that in the 62 previous years of this race. A win though would move him into a tie with Cale Yarborough (1968, 1977, 1983, 1984) for second most Daytona 500 wins ever. Only Richard Petty’s seven trips to victory lane in the Great American Race is more.
Can Elliott Get His 1st Daytona 500 Crown?
This is Chase Elliott’s NASCAR now. He won the last two Most Popular Driver awards before winning that and a championship in 2020. Now, can Elliott keep this up with a Daytona 500 win on Sunday?
Elliott, has made five starts in this race with finishes of 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th and 17th respectively. He was runner-up in last August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 though, so there’s reason for hope. But, only five times has the reigning Cup Series champion came down to Daytona the next February and actually won the Daytona 500. The last time that it actually happened was in the year 2000. Its only happened twice since 1978 overall.
Is It Kyle, Brad Or Martin’s Turn?
The Daytona 500 isn’t an easy race to win. Even the greats take years to accomplish a win in the Great American Race while some never do it. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32. Mark Martin 0-for-29. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Tony Stewart (0-for-17), Carl Edwards (0-for-12) and Ned Jarrett (0-for-7) never won either.
Among the drivers in this year’s field, only six drivers have actually won this race. But, three stand out among the winless – Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.
All three are champions of the sport, but all have also been shutout of Gatorade Victory Lane.
Truex, is 0-for-16. He’s not much of a superspeedway racer anyways but he’d love to get a win here more than ever. He only has five career top five finishes in 62 points paying superspeedway starts. He’s had seven finishes of 18th or worse in his last 11 Daytona starts.
Busch, is 0-for-15. He’s finished 20th or worse in his last eight Daytona tries including a 34th place effort in last year’s race.
While leading on Lap 180 in 2020’s edition, his car started having problems. A lap later, Busch said his engine blew and would slowly ride around the track. That was partially a blessing in disguise as he avoided the Lap 183 “Big One” two laps later.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said last year.
He did finish runner-up though in 2019 and third in 2016, but the rest of his results haven’t been all that great. 11 of his 15 Daytona 500 starts have seen him finish 14th or worse. Eight of those 11 were 23rd or worse including six of his last eight seeing him finish 19th or worse.
For Keselowski, he’s 0-for-11. What’s strange about that is, Keselowski is known as one of the better superspeedway racers in the series. His six wins on them rank him first among all active drivers right now. If things go his way and he avoids the “big ones” and can be there in the end, he most certainly would be pushing double digits in the win column.
“That’s been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said in 2019. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times. We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.
“Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race. For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.
“It’s probably kept us from winning it at least once or twice because, like I said earlier, I think we’ve had the car to do it. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so hard to win, the attrition factor, just surviving it to begin with.
“Again, of course, it is a difficult racetrack. This time of year, Florida is a lot hotter than most parts of North America, but this time of year it seems to be one of those racetracks that you practice and you qualify, then the race day, for whatever reason, the track temp goes way up, the cars slide around a lot more, chaos ensues. Trying to survive to the end for me is the biggest part.
“The races we have survived till the end, we have ran really well and been in a position to win. Hopefully that’s the case for us this year. I feel confident if I can be there at the end, we can win the race.”
Despite saying that, they’ve struggled during Daytona Speedweeks though.
Keselowski for example, he’s had 30 career Cup Series starts during Speedweeks. In those races, he’s won just once. That came in 2018 in the Clash. In those 30 overall races, he only has six top five finishes in them, three of which coming in the Clash alone. In 10 of his 30 races, he’s finished 20th or worse.
He just doesn’t have the results or luck at that.
“It’s something I thought a lot about,” said Keselowski. “There’s a couple thoughts on my mind. Before last season I had never really won a major NASCAR race. I won the championship, done a lot of those things, which is certainly great. I hadn’t won a major. Last year (2018) after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that.
“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at. We had opportunities to win it. For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling. People ask me all the time, What race is the one that got away? It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.
“Opportunities are in front of us. I feel like if I could win the Daytona 500, it would be the biggest win of my career. I’m ready to do it. I still have a good understanding of what it’s going to take to do it. It’s just a matter of kind of putting the whole race together from my perspective, from the team’s perspective as well, then not having any bad luck.”
In the Duels, eight of his 11 starts have seen him finish outside of the top 10. In the Daytona 500, he has nine finishes outside of the top 10 in 11 tries.
Other than the Clash, he’s struggled during Speedweeks.