This year's Daytona 500 is generating more hype than any other one in the 55-year history of NASCAR's biggest race for two reasons.
First, rookie-of-the-year contender Danica Patrick made NASCAR history last Sunday when she won the pole position for the Daytona 500. Patrick became the first woman to win a pole for a race in NASCAR's premier series (Sprint Cup).
Second, NASCAR has a new race car for Sprint Cup this year, the Gen-6, but it's unknown how well this car will handle in a full field of 43 cars, particularly in pack racing which occurs at restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona. Therefore, this Sunday's 500-mile race at Daytona International Speedway is likely to feature multiple big wrecks.
After claiming the pole and being among the fastest in Daytona 500 practice, Patrick has shown that she has a good chance of winning this race. If she were to win the Daytona 500, it would be a milestone not only for NASCAR but the world of sports as well.
Like the other 42 drivers in the field, Patrick's toughest task in the Daytona 500 will be avoiding multi-car crashes that frequently happen at this track. Patrick made her Sprint Cup debut in the 2012 Daytona 500. Starting 29th, she was caught up in a six-car accident that occurred on just the second lap. She managed to return to the track after her team made repairs to the car, but finished 64 laps behind in 38th. Patrick also wrecked in the twin qualifying races -- known then as the Gatorade Duel.
"I'm going to do my best to keep it clean, keep it out of trouble, get a feel for the traffic throughout the day, and hopefully put myself in a position, position-wise and knowledge-wise, to do a good job and bring it home where it started at the end of Sunday," Patrick said.
Patrick earned the pole for this year's Daytona 500 with a qualifying lap at 196.434 mph during last Sunday's time trials. Her lap speed was the fastest for this race since 1990 when Ken Schrader qualified at 196.515 mph. Jeff Gordon secured the second starting position with his lap at 196.292 mph.
Ten times has the Daytona 500 been won by the pole sitter, but the last driver to win this race from the pole was Dale Jarrett in 2000.
It doesn't matter much where you start in the Daytona 500. It's where you are in the closing laps that counts the most.
A win for Patrick in the Daytona 500 would be a surprise, but there have been upset winners in this race in the past. Just ask Trevor Bayne, who won it in only his second Sprint Cup start and became the youngest race winner one day after he turned 20 years old. Derrike Cope also pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR when he won the Daytona 500 in 1990, passing Dale Earnhardt for the lead on the final lap after Earnhardt blew a tire and fell off the pace.
Patrick holds the record for the highest-finishing female in a NASCAR national touring series race. She placed fourth in the 2011 Nationwide event at Las Vegas. Janet Guthrie's sixth-place run in the Aug. 1977 race at Bristol is the best finish for a woman in a Sprint Cup event.
"I have a lot to learn," Patrick said. "I have Jeff Gordon starting next to me. I have a herd of them behind me. I'm a rookie, and I am going to be learning as much as I can for 499 or maybe until the last 10 laps. When you implement your plan, it depends where you are. Hopefully at the end of 500, we're rolling and we have a chance."
Based on what we saw during last Saturday's Sprint Unlimited, the Gen-6 is going to make things interesting in the Daytona 500. The car made its competition debut in the preseason race at Daytona. Just 12 of the 19 drivers in the starting field finished the event. A multi-car wreck took place on lap 15, with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Deny Hamlin and Gordon among those who had their night end early. Kevin Harvick won the race after holding off Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle on the final lap.
"I thought (the Sprint Unlimited) was a fun race to run," Stewart said. "I'm glad we're not actually pushing each other. The cars still get a little nervous when guys are pushing. It doesn't seem as effective. It actually seemed to be the opposite of what you would think, versus when we used to push. We gained speed. It seems when we physically are pushing each other, the cars slow down."
Stewart has won at Daytona 18 times, including four victories in the 400-mile race here in July, but he has yet to win the Daytona 500 in 14 attempts.
The Daytona 500 is expected to feature a lot of pack racing and very few two- car tandems with the Gen-6.
"The two car tandem thing is gone, and you will still get some bump-drafting," Biffle said. "When you have that bigger pack you will get shoved up to the guy in front of you. It is probably going to be that old school pack like that."
But how the Gen-6 handles in the draft for this race remains a mystery.
"The thing about it is that when you get 43 cars out there it is going to be a ton different," Biffle added.
One driver who is hoping his luck will change in the Daytona 500 this year is Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion. Johnson won this race in 2006 but has finished 27th or worse in it the past six years.
"The 500 has been tough," he said. "Last year's was about as bad as it gets. Leaving the first lap crashing that wasn't a good one. We will hopefully make 2.7 miles this year before anything happens."
Johnson is scheduled to make his 400th career start in Sprint Cup.
Matt Kenseth won last year's Daytona 500, which was delayed one day for the first time in its history due to rain. This will be Kenseth's maiden year as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing after spending the past 13 seasons behind the wheel of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.
"It's cool to come in as the defending champion, but once we get rolling here, it doesn't really mean anything," he said. "It's always great to come in winning the previous race, but it's really about looking forward and trying to win this one."
According to the National Weather Service, the forecast for the Daytona Beach area on Sunday afternoon calls for a 40 percent chance of rain.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Feb. 24. Race: Daytona 500. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile tri-oval. Start time: 1 p.m. ET. Laps: 200. Miles: 500. 2012 Winner: Matt Kenseth. Television: FOX. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.