Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the 66th Running of the Daytona 500

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –The start of the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series is officially here and with it comes the biggest race of the season – the Daytona 500.

For 66 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: 66th Annual Daytona 500, 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

2023 Daytona 500 Winner: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet (Started 31st, 10 laps led)

2023 August Daytona Winner: Chris Buescher – No. 17 RFK Racing Ford (Started 11th , two laps 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. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 90.7
  2. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 89.3
  3. Austin Cindric – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 89.1
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 87.9
  5. Jimmie Johnson – No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Toyota – 86.8
  6. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 83.5
  7. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 80.7
  8. Brad Keselowski — No. 6 RFK Racing Ford — 79.3
  9. Bubba Wallace — No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota — 79.1
  10. John Hunter Nemechek — No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Toyota — 79.0

Speedweeks Recap

It has already been an eventful few days at the World Center of Racing, with pole qualifying on Wednesday night, followed by the Bluegreen Vacation Duels to set the remainder of the field on Thursday night.

Joey Logano and Michael McDowell provided Ford with a sweep of the front row as the Blue Oval rolls out its new Ford Mustang Dark Horse body in 2024. The following day, it was Toyota’s turn to shine, with Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell sweeping the Duels to occupy the second row.

The Duels were also intriguing with the battle among the four open cars to see which of the two would secure the final two transfer spots into the 40-car field for the Daytona 500.

In the end, it was seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Kaz Grala that outlasted their counterparts in their respective Duel races to punch their ticket into Sunday’s main event. For Johnson, it provided a sigh of relief as he staved off the first DNQ of his illustrious Cup Series career with surge he was able to get on the last lap.

With the field now set, all that remains is a pair of 50-minute practice sessions on Friday and Saturday before rolling in to race day on Sunday. Given that weather is a major concern starting on Saturday, Friday’s practice will be key to learning as much as possible for the 500 – whenever it ends up being run.

Finally Their Time?

Among the drivers that are still gunning for their first Daytona 500 include a slew of former NASCAR Cup Series champions – Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr., Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson.

All of them have been successful at tracks all over the country and some have even won at Daytona in events other than the Daytona 500, but still have a goose egg in the win column when it comes to the biggest race of the season.

Just last year, Busch led at the end of regulation, but with the race pushed to overtime, ended up on the wrong end of the equation and had to settle for waiting another year for his chance at a Daytona 500 victory. Of his 18 previous starts, the closest Busch came to winning the race was a runner-up result in 2019.

“It’s certainly the highest honor out there to be able to win a race in our sport,” Busch noted. “I have not done that yet, although I won the Daytona 500 last year under the yellow flag, not under the checkered flag. 

“Those damn technicalities keep coming up and getting me.”

Keselowski has been heralded as a top-notch superspeedway racer, winning on multiple occasions at both Daytona and Talladega, but never in the 500. Coming into the 2024 running, the driver of the No. 6 RFK Racing Ford is 0 for 14 in this event, having come the closest with a third-place finish in 2014.

“We’ve led the most laps, we’ve won the stages. To your point, we’ve won a lot of races on the other plate tracks and the 500 is the only missing thing for me,” Keselowski said of his record on superspeedways.

“To win it would check a big bucket off the list. I feel like we are doing all the right things for that to be real. In the end, you get to the last 30 or 40 laps and stuff just happens. All you can do is be in position and hope that the bad stuff doesn’t happen to you and you have a shot.”

Truex undoubtedly has been the closest to winning amongst this group, falling short by an agonizing .010 seconds over fellow Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin in 2016. All-in-all, Truex is 0 for 19 in the Daytona 500 and 0 for 37 overall at Daytona.

“This is the biggest one of the year,” said Truex. “It kicks off a new season as well, which is kind of interesting, the excitement of the offseason preparation and then you come down here and see what you have. It’s always important to kick off the season on a high note, and for us, this is our 20th try at the Daytona 500 and hopefully it’s our turn.

“[Finishing as a runner-up] not a great memory, but to be part of the closest finish in history here is cool. Just wish we were on the other side of it.”

Three of the most recent champions in Elliott, Larson, and Blaney have all run this race for nearly 10 years, but none have yet reached the pinnacle and had their names etched into the Harley J. Earl trophy.

Elliott and Larson will be looking to give Hendrick Motorsports its first win in this race since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won in 2014, while Blaney will be hoping to put his recent bad luck on superspeedways behind him to rebound from a crash in Thursday night’s Duel races to give Roger Penske another marquee win.

Last Year’s Results

Five years, seven months, 18 days.

That’s how long it had been since Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. last tasted victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, but in the 2023 Daytona 500, he broke his winless streak in the most epic fashion, surviving double overtime to win the 65th running of the Great American Race.

Always a threat on the superspeedways, Stenhouse has been in position late in the running in NASCAR’s biggest race a number of times only to fall by the wayside for one reason or another, but this time around, he took the bull by the horns and made it happen.

As the laps wound down in regulation, it was shaping up to be a battle between the RFK Racing Fords and the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets, with Stenhouse and his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet lurking in the back half of the top-10 just trying to make a run materialize.

It didn’t seem that chance would come for the Olive Branch, Mississippi native until Daniel Suarez spun with three laps to go, sending the race into overtime. Then it was go time.

Battling amongst a hornet’s nest of competitors, Stenhouse weaved his way to the front and positioned his car in the right place at the right time when a crash broke out on the final lap to bring out the caution flag and end the race.

After a tense few minutes reviewing the footage of the final lap at the moment of caution, it would come down to whether Stenhouse or Joey Logano was ahead at the moment of caution.

The scoring pylon shifted between Logano and Stenhouse as the leader a number of times before it was determined that Stenhouse was out front at the time of caution, declaring him the winner.

It was a moment of redemption for Stenhouse, returning to Victory Lane at Daytona for the first time since winning the summer race back in 2017, when he won his last two races.

 The win also comes with crew chief Mike Kelley back at the helm as the two look to recreate the same magic that they used to win back-to-back Xfinity Series championships in 2011 and 2012.

Before the race, Kelley wrote a note to Stenhouse on a piece of duct tape and placed it inside the car where only his driver could read it. The note simply read “We Believe.”

As they say, the rest is history.

“I think this whole off-season Mike just preached how much we all believed in each other,” Stenhouse said. “They left me a note in the car that said they believe in me and to go get the job done tonight. I made a few mistakes. We were able to battle back.

“This Kroger Continental team worked really, really hard in off-season, great pit stops, Hendrick engines. Glad a Chevy won.

“Man, this is unbelievable. This was the site of my last win back in 2017. We’ve worked really hard. We had a couple shots last year to get a win and fell short. It was a tough season, but man, we got it done, Daytona 500.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, February 16

  • Cup Series Practice (5:30 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, February 17

  • Cup Series Final Practice (10:30 am – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, February 18

  • 66th 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.