NASCAR Starts its 76th Season at Daytona this Weekend

NASCAR is beginning its 76th year at Daytona International Speedway, its center of racing. The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s premier contest and starts the 36-race points-paying battle that culminates in November at Phoenix Raceway.

All three of the sanctioning body’s touring series take part in this massive celebration of stock car racing, from the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series, Xfinity Series to the premier Cup Series. They’re all gaming to win on the banked 2.5-mile oval, where pack racing is always part of the mix and the “big one” is never, seemingly, far away.

Last year’s Cup Series race was won by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., continuing to drive the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. For this 66th running of the “Great American Race” the field is wide open. But then, at Daytona it always is wide open, just like the throttles on each Chevrolet, Ford or Toyota entered in this race.

While 23 drivers raced in the non-points-paying Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum less than two weeks ago, a full field of 40, culled from a 42-car group that includes 36 chartered teams locked into the race, includes six “open” teams fighting to make it in. Qualifying only determines the front row of the Daytona 500, while the balance of the field earns their spots after Thursday’s qualifying races.

While Chevrolet’s Camaro ZL1 is the sole carryover model from last season’s 75th anniversary season, both Ford and Toyota have new models to introduce to the public this week. The Ford Mustang Dark Horse and Toyota Camry XSE made their debuts at the Clash in California, but now get to do battle against Chevrolet, which has earned pole position for this race 11 consecutive times since 2013 (when Danica Patrick was the pole sitter).

Chevy will be looking for a 12th consecutive pole and Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman can tie three Hall of Fame inductees (Cale Yarborough, Bill Elliott and Buddy Baker) by earning his fourth Daytona 500 pole position.

Single car qualifying takes place on February 14th, and will be a Valentine’s Day gift to the pole winner and the driver who earns the second front row start. The balance of the field races Thursday evening in two 60-lap contests that will set the starting lineup. There are seven former winners in the field but not every one of them gets in with a charter. LEGACY MOTOR CLUB’s Jimmie Johnson, racing a Toyota for the first time in his vaunted career, is not a chartered driver, but he does have a pair of Daytona 500 wins; Johnson has to race into Sunday’s starting lineup.

2022 Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric is wearing a Gil de Ferran tribute helmet – courtesy Team Penske

Denny Hamlin, who won the Busch Light Clash this year, has three Daytona 500 victories, Johnson owns two, while Stenhouse Jr., Austin Cindric (wearing a Gil de Ferran tribute helmet), Michael McDowell Austin Dillon and Joey Logano are the sole active former winners in this year’s field, and everyone is looking to win in order to catch up to Hall of Famer Richard Petty, who’s won this race seen times!

Daytona International Speedway is kind to first-time winners; a total of 23 different drivers have won their first race in NASCAR’s Cup Series at this track while 17 different drivers have achieved their first Cup Series pole position at Daytona. Cindric was the most recent racer to earn his first Cup Series here; he performed the feat two years ago, in 2022.

The race to become NASCAR Rookie of the Year starts at Daytona, where former “super sub” racer Josh Berry takes over the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford recently vacated by Kevin Harvick. He’s joined by Kaz Grala in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford, Zane Smith’s No. 71 Spire Motorsports Chevy, and Carson Hocevar, driving the No. 77 Chevy for Spire Motorsports, replacing Ty Dillon.

Of course there’s more to watch here than the Cup Series, with Xfinity Series and CRAFTSMAN trucks joining ARCA Menards Series competitors on the oval. Of extreme interest is the Xfinity Series debut for Shan Van Gisbergen, the Australian who shocked the regulars last year when he drove the project 91 Trackhouse Racing Camaro to victory in the series inaugural street-course contest. He’s one of five drivers competing for the new Sunoco Rookie of the Year in Xfinity, together with Jesse Love, Dawson Cream, Hailie Deegan and Leland Honeyman Jr.

This year marks the 30th season for NASCAR’s CRAFTSMAN Truck Series and the 25th time the truck series has opened its season next to the track’s infield’s Lake Lloyd. Friday night’s race will have three stages of 20 laps each for the first two, while 60 laps comprise the final stage. There are three drivers vying for Rookie of the Year: Layne Riggs, Thad Moffitt and Connor Jones – all under 25 years of age, which means they can’t use a rental car under their own names but they can win a NASCAR race!

Zane Smith won this race last year for his first class victory, but he wasn’t the series champion. Ben Rhodes, who returns to the CRAFTSMAN Truck Series is the reigning champ.

While NASCAR hopes – and intends – to complete these races by Sunday night, there are rain squalls expected to hit the area starting Friday night and continuing through the weekend. In fact, heavy rain is expected on Saturday night, with cool conditions on Sunday amid showers. President’s Day on Monday is the first time clear weather is predicted for the general area, so we’ll have to see just how all the predictions pan out.

About Anne Proffit 1248 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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