Who doesn't love starting the season just minutes away from the warm sandy beaches in Daytona? But sometimes racing the Daytona 500 seems about as random as a game of bingo. No matter how good your car is, you don’t win, unless the racing gods call your number. Then bingo you are forever a Daytona 500 champ. Just ask Trevor Bayne or Derreke Cope or at the other end of the spectrum Mark Martin and Tony Stewart.
“It’s a different challenge every time you come back and that makes it enjoyable,” said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. “The packages may change and maybe the package doesn’t change, but the dynamic weather and this track surface always changes, so the way you draft is always different no matter what.”
With three races this week under our belt, it’s already been a great start to the season for Denny Hamlin. The driver of the 11 car missed the Chase a season ago after a back injury sidelined him for four races. This weekend he has a win in the Sprint Unlimited and the Budweiser Duel under his belt, making him to the favorite in Sunday’s official start to the season, the Daytona 500.
“Obviously, everyone saw that we had a really strong FedEx Camry,” said Hamlin. “Winning these plate races is all about putting yourself in position to make a run at the end, avoid the wrecks that are bound to happen, and get a little luck with the draft, whether it’s a push from behind or maintaining your lead. We have been in position many times in the Daytona 500 to try to win, but different circumstances have prevented us from getting it done. Hopefully, this year is the year to get the #11 car to Victory Lane.”
Of course any time you head to Daytona or any restrictor plate race for that matter, you need to keep your eye on the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers (Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.), The RCR stable (particularly Ryan Newman) is also strong and Stewart Haas racing teammates Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are strong on the big tracks. Then there is Kansas native Clint Bowyer, good on restrictor plate races, though he’s had better luck at Talladega then Daytona.
“You’ve got to put yourself in the right situation,” said Bowyer. “You’ve got to be a student while you’re out there and it all comes down to the end. Whatever the rule package is, you can’t change the fact that whatever reason somehow, some way, it’s wild at the end of those things.”
As Bowyer found out on Thursday night when he did a flip in his car coming to the checkered flag in his duel race. Bowyer managed to land on his wheels and roll across the start finish line in 10th, meaning he will start 20th for the Daytona 500. Rookie Austin Dillon, in the famous No.3 car, will start on the poll.
“It brings some momentum into our season already to show that RCR cars have speed, and I'm so happy to be working with Gil and all of our guys,” said Dillon. “I know I'm the young guy out of the group, the rookie of the group, and I really think I'm going to learn a lot this year from these guys.”
If nothing else, 2014 is set up to be an interesting season. There’s more change floating around the garage area this year then at the bottom of my purse. New drivers in new places, new rules packages for the car, new qualifying rules starting in Phoenix, and of course a new way to choose the season ending champion.
“I think that it will make for a little bit of excitement,” said Kasey Kahne, “and it will be a better year.”