Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
February 26, 2017
The Daytona 500 remains one of the pillars of the American sports calendar. The annual NASCAR season-opening race, which celebrates its 59th running Sunday afternoon, allows the Monster Energy Cup Series to take center stage.
Both diehard and mainstream fans should be in for an entertaining battle if the Advance Auto Parts Clash and the Can-Am Duels are any indication. Those events showcased plenty of wide-open racing, which left the door open for a lot of movement up and down the field.
So let’s check out all of the important information for the first outing of the 36-race campaign. That’s followed by a look at the drivers with the best odds to win the Great American Race and a preview of some contenders to keep an eye on throughout the 500-mile journey.
Where: Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida
When: Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Best Race Odds
|2017 Daytona 500: Oddsmakers’ Top Choices|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||+450|
|T-9||Martin Truex Jr.||78||+1400|
|Odds via OddsShark|
Drivers To Watch
Favorite: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
NASCAR isn’t the same without Junior on the track. He’s the polarizing figure who helps create drama like the New York Yankees, New England Patriots or Duke basketball. So the fact he’s ready for a full-time return after dealing with concussion issues is a nice boost for the series heading into 2017.
It wasn’t always a guarantee he’d be ready to roll when the new season arrived, though. He told Bob Pockrass of ESPN.com there were times while recovering from the symptoms where even typically simple tasks became a frustrating adventure for him.
“I [initially] couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without falling over like a drunk-driving test,” Earnhardt said. “I couldn’t take one step without having to step to the right or step to the left to catch myself.”
He added: “There was a lot of time in there during the recovery where there were days where I was 90 percent sure I wasn’t going to drive again. There were days where it was 50 percent.”
Now he’s back and seemingly ready to start the year with a bang. He posted the second-best time during qualifying to secure a place on the front row and led more than 50 laps in the second Can-Am Duel before losing the lead late, an experience that should help him Sunday.
Between those strong shows and the fact Earnhardt has won the Daytona 500 twice before, it’s no surprise he’s listed as the clear favorite heading into the race. A victory on his return, especially on this stage, would make quite a statement.
Sleeper: Austin Dillon
Dillon is still waiting for his big breakthrough after taking the reins of the storied No. 3 car made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr. He’s showcased potential during his three years as a regular in the Cup series and he made a lot of progress in 2016 en route to a spot in the playoffs.
Often it just takes one marquee victory to give a young driver the confidence they can compete at the highest level. No race presents that opportunity better than the Daytona 500. It’s the one triumph every driver wants on their resume when their career comes to a close.
Tom Jensen of Fox Sports noted Dillon, who earned the pole position for the race in 2014, laid it out plain and simple this week: “I want to win the Daytona 500. Stage points matter, but to me, I’d like to win this race.” The 26-year-old rising star also discussed his offseason preparation.
“To take it to that next level, I’ve watched a lot of tape,” Dillon said. “Seeing what it’s going to take. I sat down with our engineers and crew chiefs, and I think the biggest thing is just getting a little bit more aggressive in the side-drafting department.”
He finished 31st in his first outing in the event in 2013. Since then, however, he hasn’t ended up outside the top 14 and crossed the finish line ninth in both 2014 and 2016. He also enjoyed a lot of success in restrictor-plate races last season, earning four top-10 results.
Dillon will start 10th, which is a nice spot. It will allow him to gauge how his car is operating in traffic without being so deep in the field that he’s at risk of getting caught up in an early crash. If a few things fall his way, his day in the spotlight could arrive Sunday.
Predicted Winner: Kyle Busch
The one thing that’s always made Busch stand out is his competitive fire. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Daytona 500 or a random Xfinity Series race in the middle of the season, he wants to emerge victorious and do it in dominant fashion, if possible.
Yet, that’s probably one of the reasons he’s never won the biggest race of them all, too. So much of Daytona is staying out of trouble, which involves both luck and cutting down on risk. The latter is tough for the Joe Gibbs Racing star, who always wants to push the envelope.
He told Ron Kantowski of the Las Vegas Review-Journal the role of luck can’t be overstated, and that takes a lot out of a driver’s hands.
“Winning the Daytona 500, you can only do so much,” Busch said. “A lot of it’s car, a lot of it’s luck, a lot of it’s skill. It’s all embedded in there. One of the biggest factors I’d say is just it being your day and having luck on your side.”
The silver lining is his understanding of that balance. As a driver who wants to control everything, knowing there are some things he won’t be able to handle no matter how well he performs takes some of the mental burden away heading into his 12th start in the Daytona 500.
Busch will start 21st, so avoiding an early wreck is crucial to his success Sunday. If he does, there will be plenty of time and opportunity to climb the leaderboard. Look for him in contention late en route to getting the monkey off his back by winning the Great American Race for the first time.