Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the 61st Annual Daytona 500

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The start of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is officially here and with it comes the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500.

For 61 years, drivers have been making the pilgrimage to the Daytona high banks to win the sport’s most prestigious race and write themselves into the record book as Daytona 500 champion. Many have attempted it, but only a select few have been able to hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy in victory lane at the end of the day. Some go their entire careers without being able to accomplish that feat.

Will we see a new face in victory lane on Sunday, or will it be one of the grizzled veterans flexing their muscles to make another trip to that hallowed ground? 500 miles will tell the tale.

By the Numbers

What: 61st Annual Daytona 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 1 of 36

Where: Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Florida (Opened: 1959)

TV/Radio: FOX, 2:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 2.5-mile tri-oval

Banking: 31 degrees in turns, 18 degrees in tri-oval, 6 degrees on straightaways

Race Length: 200 laps, 500 miles

Stage Lengths: First two stages – 60 laps each, Final stage – 80 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

2018 Daytona 500 Winner: Austin Dillon – No. 3 Chevrolet (Started 14th, one lap led)

2018 July Daytona Winner: Erik Jones – No. 20 Toyota (Started 29th, one lap led) 

Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott (42.783 seconds, 210.364 mph – 02/15/1987)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Daytona:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 90.6 – 1 win
  2. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 88.7
  3. Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chevrolet – 88.5 – 1 win
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 87.9 – 1 win
  5. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 86.8 – 3 wins
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 86.0 – 1 win
  7. Darrell Wallace, Jr. – No. 43 Chevrolet – 83.8
  8. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 83.1 – 2 wins
  9. Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 78.8
  10. Jamie McMurray – No. 40 Chevrolet – 78.6 – 2 wins

Speedweeks Recap

At this point, we’re halfway through Speedweeks at Daytona, with both pole qualifying and the Advance Auto Parts Clash having been run last Sunday.

It was an all-Hendrick Motorsports day at the track, with the organization sweeping the top four spots in qualifying to kick things off. William Byron scored his first career pole and will lead the field to the green with teammate Alex Bowman alongside to start Sunday’s race.

A couple of hours later, Hendrick Motorsports was celebrating once again when Jimmie Johnson won the Clash. The event featured a lot of single-car racing, which gave way to chaos in the end with rain closing in on the speedway.

Paul Menard held the lead in his Wood Brothers Racing Ford when Johnson attempted to slingshot around him down the backstretch. The two made contact, sending Menard spinning in front of the oncoming pack and involving most of the cars in the 20-car field by the time all was said and done.

Johnson took over the lead as the skies opened up and NASCAR called the race early due to inclement weather.

Ford got their new Cup Series Mustang program off on the right foot in Thursday night’s Gander RV Duels, with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano sweeping the races for the new Blue Oval model for 2019.

From the Driver’s Seat

“Man, I can’t wait to get to Daytona,” said Clint Bowyer. “After Homestead, you are glad to get a break and kind of unwind. We had a lot of fun but, after a couple of weeks, you are ready to get going and start racing again. I don’t care how long you have been in the sport, when you drive through the tunnel at Daytona for the first time, it gets your heart racing and your blood pumping and you are ready to start the new season.”

Last Year’s Results

It looked like the 2018 running of the Daytona 500 was Florida native Aric Almirola’s to lose. That is until Austin Dillon came knocking.

After a huge push from defacto teammate Bubba Wallace down the backstretch, Dillon found himself right on the rear bumper of Almirola’s Ford heading into Turn 3 on the final lap. The two made contact, sending Almirola spinning into the outside wall.

From then on, it was smooth sailing for Dillon, who returned the No. 3 Chevrolet to Daytona victory lane for the first time since the late Dale Earnhardt won the Great American Race back in 1998.

“I did what I had to do there at the end,” said Dillon. “I hate it for the No. 10 (Aric Almirola) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona. This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane 20 years ago. This one is for Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and all those Sr. fans.  I love you guys.  We are going to keep kicking butt the rest of the year!”

Wallace and Denny Hamlin, who crossed the line side-by-side, would follow Dillon to the finish. Joey Logano, Chris Buescher, Paul Menard, Ryan Blaney, Ryan Newman, Michael McDowell, and A.J. Allmendinger rounded out the top-10 as the only cars still on the lead lap.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Thursday, February 15

  • MENCS Gander RV Duel 1 (7:00 pm – 60 laps, 150 miles – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Gander RV Duel 2 (9:00 pm – 60 laps, 150 miles – FOX Sports 1)

Friday, February 16

  • MENCS Practice (1:05 pm to 1:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Practice (3:05 pm to 3:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, February 17

  • MENCS Final Practice (12:05 pm to 12:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, February 18

  • MENCS 61st Annual Daytona 500 (2:30 pm – 200 laps, 500 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.