Daytona 500 preview: If the top 32 drivers were NFL teams, then Jimmie Johnson would be the New England Patriots.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—It’s been almost three weeks since pro football officially deserted us, leaving us bereft. If you’re looking for a fix, one that promises considerably more action than what’s been on offer at the NFL scouting combine thus far, then look no further than NASCAR. Its season officially kicks off this weekend and peaks with Sunday’s Daytona 500, which airs at 1 p.m. Eastern time on FOX.
Who will take the checkered flag? Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner, has positioned himself as the favorite in what could be his last running of the Super Bowl of stock car racing. His Chevy has been quick throughout the fortnight on Daytona’s 2-1/2-mile oval. In fact, on Sunday, Gordon landed on the pole—for just the second time in his superb career.
Who will challenge him? How about his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, led by Jimmie Johnson and 500 defending champion Dale Earnhardt Jr.—who swept Thursday’s Budweiser Duel races and give Hendrick a 1-2-3 start for Sunday’s race.
Who should you support? That’s easy. If you already have a favorite NFL team, you then already have a favorite driver among the field of 43. To wit, here are the 32 most likely examples:
The dynasty of the decade, with a run of prosperity that includes six Cup series championships and a pair of Daytona 500 titles. The degree to which he is praised and panned for his clutch performances and charmed life calls to mind a certain Super Bowl MVP. During the majority of his career Johnson has driven for one coach—crew chief Chad Knaus—who, incidentally, also has a reputation for being a bit of a cheat.
He's been tasked with resuscitating a brand that was once synonymous with winning, and has shown promise that he might actually be able to get the job done. Started on the Daytona pole as a rookie in 2014; launches from the 30th position this year.
A source of great fascination among media, and the results still have yet to meet the hype, but she maintains a loyal following anyway—one that will surely be delighted to see her on the 500 grid after she narrowly made the cut in a backup and will follow her if she has to decamp from SHR. (She's in a contract year.)
Proudly wears "everyman" bona fides (drove a tow truck in college, still lives in a college town) and twice came within the last race of winning a championship. And lost each time. He hopes to improve his fortunes this year with a new team. Nobody circles the wagon like he does. In fact, after each win he backflips off of it.
Like the boys in black and gold, Stewart is a standard bearer for his sport. He approaches competition as an exercise in axe grinding and has a habit of driving head-long into controversy.
The feisty 2012 Cup champion who caught the field by surprise also, like Tony Stewart, treats competition as an exercise in axe-grinding. He once compared himself to Dale Sr. and Ayrton Senna, a boast that was not unlike the Ravens' Joe Flacco calling himself the league's best QB.
Comes from legendary stock (his uncle, Rick, is sort of a Paul Brown figure in IndyCar, with a record four Indy 500 triumphs to his name). Mears was a popular long-shot title pick when he raced for Ganassi, Hendrick and Childress during the last decade, but he has been virtually harmless since then.
He holds great ambitions, but success—just eight wins in 10 years—remains elusive. Yet he retains a loyal following, largely because he forces you to like him.
He was nicknamed Sliced Bread (as in "the best thing since..."), a tout that comes with a vertiginously high expectation level that recalls a certain recent No. 1 draft pick. Like Indy's Andrew Luck, Logano followed a legend when he turned pro—the mighty Tony Stewart. He also knows about heartbreaking postseason loss. His bumbling late pit stop at Homestead last year was basically the stock car equivalent of Tracy Porter's pick-6.
This is an expansion team that feels more like a reboot than a complete original. That could be because Blaney drove for Penske last year and helped them win the Xfinity owners' title. It also could be because he's making his fulltime Sprint Cup debut this year with the Wood Brothers, the oldest active team in the sport.
A franchise with an under-appreciated history (his granddad and boss is Hall of Fame car owner Richard Childress; his brother is second-year vet Austin) and yet Ty has not exactly proved himself (in fact, he's embarking on his rookie Cup campaign). Yet there's an aura about him, like he's on the cusp of his own Music City Miracle. His gritty qualifying run to get into the 500 seemed like as much of a launching moment as Frank Wycheck's lateral.
He's been down on his luck for most of his Cup career (zero wins and three poles in nine years) and his viability is often questioned, yet he rolls on. Gilliland was a Western High (Anaheim, Calif.) teammate of Tiger Woods—but wouldn't think of challenging him to a match game.
He won back-to-back championships (in the Xfinity series, in '11 and '12) and operates in the long shadow of a legend—in this case, Carl Edwards, who defined Roush Racing's winning tradition. He's also been called soft. Actually, the word his girlfriend, Danica Patrick, used was "cuddly."
He has west coast roots (Washington is his home state) and is often touted as a championship contender, yet he rarely shows up in the playoffs. His best year-end finish, fourth, came three years ago.
He won one of the more significant championships in history—the 2001 Daytona 500, the same race that claimed the life of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and is steeped in tradition (he's the younger brother of three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip). Michael seems to be on TV all the time—mostly as a commentator and, recently, as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.
He's been trying to reconcile a commitment to excellence (25 Cup wins, a championship in 2004) with a bad boy reputation. He's been successful, yes, but he's underachieved too and now hes gotten himself suspended indefinitely by NASCAR as the Patricia Driscoll domestic violence case plays out in the courts. His replacement in the Daytona 500 will be Regan Smith.
He's America's Team™ and had a breakout 2014 season—four wins, including last year's Daytona 500—that halted a long stretch of mediocre campaigns. He also hates the Redskins. (Just kidding. He loves actually loves the Redskins.)
Like the team from the City of Brotherly Love, he revels in his bellicose reputation. He also looks like championship material but can never seem to get over the hump. Like Chip Kelly's offense, his preferred operating speed is 100 miles per minute. Unfortunately, he fractured his leg in a crash during Saturday's Xfinity race at Daytona and will be replaced by Matt Crafton.
He converts potential into excitement at a rate that recalls Washington in 2012, when a certain Heisman Trophy-winning QB came to town and electrified the league. This franchise has a winning tradition, but it's on the IndyCar side.
His his last championship (back in '02, when the Xfinity Series was sponsored by Busch) feels like it happened eons ago. Biffle seems like more of a title contender than he actually is, but he's heavily supported by his fans.
He's actually from Wisconsin and a massive cheesehead. He's won a title in the last 13 years and will go all Clay Matthews on you if you cross him.
He's strongly associated with a family-owned company—a chain of home improvement centers and is suddenly relevant after years of below-grade results (thanks to his move to Richard Childress Racing). Appears to be poised to run with the big dogs.
He was really, really good a long time ago (three IndyCar titles, a Borg-Warner trophy in '06), but has been pretty disappointing during the last seven years. Hornish is now in the throes of a massive reboot with Richard Petty Motorsports this year.
Like the NFL team, Newman got into the playoffs last year without a winning record (in fact, he had no wins at all). He's not the most exciting driver to watch, but he's effective nonetheless. His toughness is underrated and he has a knack for fully flowering at events like Daytona, which he won in 2008.
Hold the distinction of being one of the few drivers to win the Cup ('00) and Xfinity ('91) series titles as well as the IROC championship ('01). He helped create a winning culture out of whole cloth while racing for Joe Gibbs back in his heyday day and he remains a sentimental favorite despite less-than-stellar results of late.
He's been around for a while, but can't shake the "expansion team" perception"—yet he's only 29 years old and a tough contender (35 career top-10s), but with little hardware to show for it. When he does win big, it's usually when expectations are next to nil.
A genuine product of Florida, his mere presence in the sport, as a Cuban-American, seems like as much of a lark as the Bucs winning it all in 2003. He hasn't been the strongest performer in the aggregate—five top-5s, one pole and a win at last summer's Daytona race—and yet he feels like he's trending in the right direction.
He's legitimately from the Bay area and was a dynasty in a bygone era (four series championships and three Daytona 500 titles). He's making a bit of comeback now even though he's technically about to retire.
Has had some success grabbing Xfinity titles in '04 and '05 and is a better racer than his Cup record shows. Like Rams owner Stan Kroenke, Truex's team owner Barney Visser lives in Denver.
He's been great in spurts—at no time more memorably than in 2010 when he won the Daytona 500. McMurray consistently leaves you with the feeling that his next year will be his best year, and that feels like the case again in '15 as he teams up with rookie of the year Kyle Larson on a Ganassi team that has never looked stronger.