Wednesday, February 18, 2015

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Notes: 2015 Daytona 500

At least 35 drivers have a legitimate shot to win Daytona 500

Gordon Has ‘Wide Open’ View For Start Of Final Lap
When Jeff Gordon announced in late January that 2015 would be his final full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the hashtag #JGFinalLap trended on Twitter.

And that final ‘lap’ will begin with a wide open view, as Gordon will start first after winning the Coors Light Pole for his final Daytona 500 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

It’s Gordon’s fourth pole overall at Daytona, and second in the Daytona 500. The first came in 1999 – a race he won. If he wins again on Sunday, it would be his fourth Daytona 500 victory, tying him with Cale Yarborough for second-most all-time (Richard Petty, seven).

It would also his 21st win from the pole, which would be tied for fourth all time with Bobby Isaac.

Harvick Looks To Join Hall of Fame Group
You don’t see this every day. Or, more specifically: Every decade.

Kevin Harvick will look to pull off the almost unheard of "NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship-followed-by-Daytona 500-win" double. Only five drivers have accomplished the feat, and none since 2000. The five: Lee Petty (1958 championship, 1959 Daytona 500); Richard Petty (1972 championship; 1973 Daytona 500); Cale Yarborough (1976 championship, 1977 Daytona 500); Jeff Gordon (1998 championship, 1999 Daytona 500); and Dale Jarrett (1999 championship, 2000 Daytona 500). All those drivers are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, except for Jeff Gordon – who will assuredly be honored one day.

Harvick owns a varied history in the Daytona 500. He won the closest Daytona 500 in the race’s history in 2007, edging Mark Martin to the finish line by a margin of .020 seconds. Still, he’s suffered DNFs in two of the last four Daytona 500s, finishing 42nd in 2011 (engine) and 2013 (accident).

Back-To-Back For Junior?
Remember that list three sentences ago? This one’s even shorter.

Here’s the list of drivers who have won back-to-back Daytona 500s: Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95).

After his stirring win to open the 2014 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to join that exclusive club on Sunday with his third Daytona 500 victory. (And that, by the way, would put him on another short list of drivers with three or more wins in the Great American Race: Richard Petty (seven), Cale Yarborough (four), Bobby Allison (three), Dale Jarrett (three), Jeff Gordon (three).)

Earnhardt, who has led laps in 10 of his 15 Daytona 500 starts, has seven top fives in the Daytona 500, including his two wins and four runner-up finishes.

Duel Races Sets Remainder Of Daytona 500 Field
Only the front row starting positions for Sunday’s Daytona 500 are set, with Jeff Gordon winning the Coors Light Pole and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson joining him on the front row. Thursday’s night’s Duel at Daytona (7 p.m. on FOX Sports 1) will set the remainder of the field.

• The front row – Gordon and Johnson – was set after Sunday’s Coors Light Pole qualifying last Sunday.

• The highest 15 finishers in each Duel race – excluding the already locked-in front row – will earn a spot in the Daytona 500, and fill positions 3-32.

• Based on their finishing position in the first Duel race, the top 15 will line up on the inside row (odd-number starting positions).

• Based on their finishing position in the second Duel race, the top 15 will line up on the outside row (even-number starting positions).

• Positions 33-36 will go to the four fastest cars from any round of qualifying that have not already earned a spot. Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray – who turned the four fastest laps in qualifying – can fall back on their times should they not earn a spot via their Duel finish.

• Position 37-42 will be provisional positions, and go to the highest six cars in 2014 owner points that have not already qualified via the Duel or Coors Light Pole qualifying. If they don’t earn a spot via the Duel, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth will nab a spot via their 2014 owner points position.

• Finally, the 43rd starting position will be assigned to any car owner who has the most recent eligible past NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion who did not make the field by any other method. Since Harvick (2014 champion), Johnson (2013 champion) and Keselowski (2012 champion) would have already made the field using one of the means detailed above, this spot would go to Tony Stewart, the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. If the 43rd position remains unused by a past champion it will be assigned to the next highest car in 2014 owner points not already locked into the field.

Only One Hole In Stewart’s Incredible Resume
Tony Stewart’s prolific resume is rivaled only by George Costanza. The difference: Instead of Kruger Industrial Smoothing, Play Now and Marine Biologist, Stewart’s past includes three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, two-time Brickyard 400 winner and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

Does that last paragraph make sense? No. But neither does this: Stewart hasn’t won a Daytona 500.

It defies logic. He’s won at Daytona four times (all came in the July race), yet remains snake-bitten in the biggest race of the year, especially recently. He’s failed to finish inside the top 10 in each of the last five Daytona 500s and his average finish during that span is 25.3. His best Daytona 500 finish was second in 2004.

Carl Edwards Begins New Chapter
After spending the first 11 seasons of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career with Ford and Roush Fenway Racing, Carl Edwards officially starts his first campaign driving the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Edwards was able to breathe a sigh of relief following last Sunday’s Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole qualifying when he posted the third-fastest lap of the day (202.315 mph) to earn a position in "The Great American Race." Since his No. 19 JGR team is new, Edwards could not carry over owners points from 2014 to possibly earn a provisional spot in the 500 if he did not qualify via Thursday night’s Budweiser Duel.

Edwards takes new sponsors Arris and Stanley Tools to Daytona as he tries to win NASCAR’s biggest race for the first time. His best Daytona 500 finish was a second-place showing in 2011. A two-race winner last year, Edwards hopes to have a similar season to Matt Kenseth’s 2013 campaign. Kenseth, who also moved to JGR from RFR that year, posted a career-high seven victories and finished runner-up in the final standings.

Sophomore Slump? Not Likely For Larson
There were whispers entering the 2014 season that Kyle Larson wasn’t ready for a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ride.

The No. 42 Target Chevrolet driver proved his naysayers wrong with car-owner Chip Ganassi saying, "I'd like to thank all the people who thought we brought him along too fast last year."

All Larson did was run away with the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of eight top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, draw rave reviews from some of the sport’s biggest names and barely miss out on becoming just the second rookie to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Expectations are higher for the 22-year-old known as "Young Money" this season and he believes he can take the next step to stardom.

At the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, Larson said, "We are capable of definitely being a top-10 car each week, winning at least two races, making the Chase and going for the championship."

Co-owner Felix Sabates agreed, guaranteeing that both Larson and fellow Chip Ganassi Racing drive Jamie McMurray would make the Chase.

The pair has already started off the year strong, leading CGR’s No. 02 car to victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Blaney Takes Next Step In Promising Young Career
Twenty-one-year-old phenom Ryan Blaney will take the next step in his career when he gets behind the wheel of his No. 21 Motorcraft Ford Fusion in Sunday’s Daytona 500 – the first of 18 scheduled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races he will run for the famed Wood Brothers Racing Team this season. "The Great American Race" marks the third-career NSCS start for Blaney, who piloted team Penske’s No. 12 car at Kansas (27th-place finish) and Talladega (22nd) last season.

Blaney, a NASCAR Next alumnus, has shown he has talent and vast potential the past three seasons, competing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series (two wins) and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (three wins). He has helped pilot the No. 22 Team Penske Ford to the NXS owner’s title the past two seasons and placed second in the NCWTS point standings in 2014.

A win at Daytona for a youthful Wood Brothers driver would not be unprecedented. Trevor Bayne (20 years, one day) became the youngest driver to find Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 in just his second career NSCS start for Wood Brothers in 2011.

Welcome Back, Ron!
Following an 11-year hiatus from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action, Ron Hornaday Jr. returns to stock car racing’s highest level at the Daytona 500. He will debut the No. 30 Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff Chevrolet for The Motosports Group – a team owned by Virginia businessman Curtis Key, that’s attempting its first season in the NSCS.

One of the most storied drivers in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history, Hornaday boasts all-time NCWTS records of four championships and 51 victories. The 56-year-old has made 45 career NSCS starts – his last coming for Richard Childress racing in the 2003 season finale. He claims only one top-10 showing at the Cup level – a ninth-place finish at Las Vegas in 2001.

Jeb Burton To Launch Sprint Cup Career At Daytona
Another Burton is attempting to etch his name into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history. Jeb Burton, 22, will make his series debut in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway – the same place he celebrated in Victory Lane as a nine-year-old when his father Ward Burton won "The Great American Race" in 2002. The No. 26 BK Racing Toyota Camry driver also follows in the footsteps of his uncle, Jeff Burton, a current NBC NASCAR analyst, and 21-time NSCS race winner.

Burton has run a full-time schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the past two seasons and claims one victory, seven Coors Light Pole Awards, seven top fives and 19 top 10s in 49 starts on the circuit. He is a 2013-14 member of the NASCAR Next initiative.


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