5 Questions Before ... Daytona 500

Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR
Smaller restrictor plates or not, we’re going racing this Sunday for the official start to the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Before we start worrying about championships, points, and changes, let’s focus on the race at hand and decide what we’re going to see in this weekend’s Great American Race.

Here a few questions on my mind heading into Daytona…

Will the changes NASCAR put in place produce better racing? … In Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout, two car drafts were the main characters with the final lap coming down to four drivers paired up and going for the victory. The racing wasn’t terrible, but three-wide racing was sorely lacking from the track that is known for its tight 30 car packs of cars running 3 and 4 wide all the way around the racetrack. NASCAR initiated a restrictor plate change, reducing plates by 1/64th of an inch down to 57/64ths of an inch to slow the speeds in the draft; reduced the size of the grille opening; and installed a hose to cool the radiator when temperatures get too hot—around 240 degrees Fahrenheit. All of this is supposed to make it harder to stay in a two car draft for more than a few laps. Tighter racing is always more exciting, and hopefully we get back to some of those huge packs of cars that always keep eyes glued to the TV screen and butts in the seat.

Will the race have a storybook ending? … This year’s Daytona 500 marks the 10 year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will be making his 400th start in the Daytona 500 this Sunday and SpeedWeeks has already gone very well for the No. 88 driver. Earnhardt drew the pole winning flag for the Budweiser Shootout starting lineup and was fastest in qualifying this past Sunday for the Daytona 500. While he was caught up in a crash in the Budweiser Shootout, many tears would be shed if the son of the legendary driver of the No. 3 car would take home the trophy on the 10th anniversary of his death. On the third lap of the race, a moment of silence will be held and fans at the track will be asked to hold up three fingers in Sr.’s memory.

Will we see a record number of lead changes? … The new Daytona surface has been likened to Talladega Superspeedway many times, a track that saw a record number of lead changes not just at Talladega but the most lead changes in any NASCAR race ever! Saturday night’s Budweiser Shootout saw a record number of lead changes with 28, up from 23 back in 2009. The record number of lead changes is 60, set in the 1974 Daytona 500. In the 2010 Daytona 500, we saw a total of 52 lead changes among 21 drivers, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this weekend’s race will see a few records broken.

How will the Daytona 500 impact the season of whoever wins it? … Last year, Jamie McMurray had a breakout season of sorts. After winning the Daytona 500, McMurray went on to win the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While McMurray failed to make the Chase that year, he was a contender for the win in several other races and maintained that he would rather win the races he did than make the Chase. Matt Kenseth, the 2009 Daytona 500 champion, also failed to make the Chase, but started the year off on a hot streak by winning the first two races of the season. In 2008, Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman missed the Chase as well and failed to win a race the rest of the season. So, while the impact a Daytona 500 victory has on a driver’s season  differentiates between drivers, the impact it has on a driver’s career is immeasurable.

What will be said about the standings after the race? … Yeah I know I said we wouldn’t talk about points, but remember this is the first race that will be used with the new 43 to 1 points system (1st place gets 43 points, 2nd place gets 42, etc..) Three extra points are awarded to the winner of the race. One bonus point will be given to any driver that leads a lap, and another point will be given to the driver who leads the most laps. While the points at the end of the race will most likely look nothing like the final standings after Homestead in November, the Daytona 500 will give us a chance to really get acquainted with the new points system and see it applied in an actual race.

Bonus questions: Approximately what lap will the pothole form? … Will the Daytona 500 winner cry in Victory Lane for the third year in a row? … If anyone other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins the race, will Tony Kornheiser eat crow?
5 Questions Before ... Daytona 500 5 Questions Before ... Daytona 500 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, February 17, 2011 Rating: 5