His hands in the pockets of his winter coat, the most powerful owner in American motor sports walked down pit road at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday afternoon. One of his drivers,
"That's one down," Hendrick said to an acquaintance. "Now we've just got to keep it going."
Is it any surprise that, so far, Hendrick Motorsports has dominated Speedweeks at Daytona? Last Saturday, Hendrick drivers qualified first (
In a word: Yes.
This should be a memorable 500. Because NASCAR has made the holes in the restrictor plates as large as they've been since 1989, speeds will be up on Sunday. Forty cars, after all, were faster in qualifying than the pole winner was last year. And because NASCAR has relaxed its rules on bump-drafting -- drivers can now slam into the rear of another car wherever they please, not just in the straightaways, which was the only place they could attempt this dicey maneuver last year -- the race could very well feature more banging and paint trading (and hence more wrecks) than any in recent memory.
There's also this: NASCAR will no longer penalize for aggressive driving. The governing body told drivers during the offseason that they'll be allowed to police themselves. Add this all up and you have a recipe for a riveting race.
The Gatorade duel races on Thursday were certainly compelling. Both came down to photo finishes: Johnson beat
"If anyone says racing at Daytona isn't the best it's ever been," said
I agree.I think Sunday's race will come down to a battle between five drivers:
Johnson, Earnhardt, Kahne, Stewart, and -- my darkhorse --
My pick is Little E. I had a long chat with
Sunday's race is absolutely critical for Earnhardt. Coming off the worst season of his career -- he finished 25th in the points last year while his teammates came in first (Johnson), second (Mark Martin) and third (
"Hopefully we can make a statement on Sunday," McGrew said as he stood next to the green-and-white No. 88 Chevy on Thursday evening. "There's no question it's a big day for us."
A day that, I think, will end with McGrew and his driver in Victory Lane.