Saturday's motors: Five stories to watch in Sunday’s NASCAR opener

Matt Baker
Tampa Bay Times

Daytona Beach, Fla. — Sunday’s Daytona 500 figures to be unpredictable, even by the already wild standards of the NASCAR Cup Series’ biggest race.

Here are five of the biggest questions surrounding Sunday’s Great American Race:

1. Does the Next Gen car create more parity?

Though drivers raced the Next Gen cars in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition earlier this month and in the Daytona International Speedway duel, Sunday will be the machines’ formal debut. Drivers are still learning a lot about them, from how to draft in a pack to how to time moves.

“The unknowns of it create a lot of excitement for me,” Bubba Wallace said.

Bubba Wallace takes a break in his garage during NASCAR practice at Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The biggest unknown: how much closer will the racing be?

The Cup Series is divided between haves (Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing) and have-nots (most other teams). The teams with the most resources win most of the time.

But the richest teams lost an advantage with the Next Gen car, because they can no longer build and design most of their parts; they must instead buy them from vendors (who have been backed up due to supply-chain issues). Because the parts are essentially the same for every team, the gap between the haves and have-nots could shrink.

“I think the common sense is that it won’t make the gap bigger, at least, from the top teams throughout the whole field,” Front Row Motorsports’ Todd Gilliland said.

Others, including 2015 Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano, are less convinced.

“As much as all the parts are the same now … people win races, right?” Logano said. “Not parts.”

We’ll find out.

2. Can Denny Hamlin continue his Daytona dominance?

Hamlin has won three of the last six 500s (2016, ‘19 and ‘20). Another victory in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota would tie him with Cale Yarborough for second-most ever, behind Richard Petty’s seven.

Hamlin can’t quite explain his success. There’s something about the track’s walls, width or banking that he has figured out to know where the valuable air pockets are. But that was in the old generation of cars.

“It’s going to move around a little bit different,” Hamlin said, “so I probably will be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend.”

3. Will Aric Almirola finally win the big one?

Two of his three Cup wins have been at superspeedways (at Talladega in ‘18 and Daytona’s July race in ‘14). He has raced well at the 500, too. He finished fourth in ‘17, led six laps in ‘20 and was leading with half a lap left in ‘18 before getting nudged by eventual race winner Austin Dillon.

Almirola is retiring from full-time competition after this year, so this will likely be his final shot at winning his series’ biggest race.

4. Is Bubba Wallace ready to break through?

Wallace has become one of the faces of NASCAR through his activism, charisma and, yes, the fact that he is the lone Black driver in a series steeped in the South. The 28-year-old has justified some of his fame through his first Cup win (at Talladega last year) and his second-place finish in the 500 four years ago.

Add in his high-profile team (23XI Racing, co-owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan), and Wallace looks like the transcendent star NASCAR has been awaiting. Winning the 500 would push him into the sports stratosphere.

5. Will Hendrick Motorsports turn qualifying speed into a win?

Hendrick, again, will lead the field after defending series champion Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman swept the front row in qualifying. Larson’s pole was Hendrick’s seventh in eight years here, and teammates Chase Elliott and William Byron were also among the five quickest drivers.

But Hendrick has struggled to turn qualifying speed into wins; the team’s last 500 triumph was with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014. Elliott and Larson are among the series’ top drivers – arguably the top two – and will try to end Hendrick’s drought while making history for themselves.