While the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event took place last week with The Clash at Daytona, the sport truly gets going this week with the Daytona 500.
The start of every new sports season is always exciting, but there are a lot of storylines to look forward to with the start of this year’s NASCAR season. The new scoring system debuts this week, which should intensify an already drama-filled Daytona 500 race. The new point system encourages hard racing throughout the season, and the stage format encourages the hard charging moments that fans are clamoring for.
The return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also a source of interest to the start of the season. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races last year and on Sunday, he'll start in the front row of the Daytona 500 with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott. Elliott made no apologies for beating out NASCAR's most popular driver.
"Obviously, Dale is good down here and we all knew he was going to be fast today," said Elliott. "That's no surprise. But I don't really care who it is. I'm not going to feel bad about beating somebody. So it's cool to share a front row with a teammate, is really the biggest thing I look at with that."
While Earnhardt fans were hoping he'd win the pole for Sunday's race, history is on Dale Jr.'s side. Only nine times in the history of the Daytona 500 has the pole sitter ended up winning the Great American Race with Dale Jarrett the last to accomplish that feat in 2000.
A win for Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 would be huge for him, as he hasn't won a race since November 2015.
While Earnhardt may still be getting comfortable behind the wheel, don’t be surprised if he breaks his winless streaks at one of his best tracks, Daytona. His average finish is the second best among active drivers.
While the sport is eager to have the veteran Earnhardt back, a handful of young drivers are looking for their first Monster Energy Series victory on Sunday, too. Rookies Erik Jones, Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez headline a group of young drivers that includes Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon who are all looking for their first Monster Energy Series win. Should one of them visit Victory Lane, they would join a list of seven other drivers who captured their first win in the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne was the last driver to accomplish this feat in 2011.
Eyes will be on Stewart-Haas Racing this week as their manufacturer transition to Ford has put a spotlight on their four drivers. At the forefront is Kevin Harvick, who finished eighth in the final standings last year.
Meanwhile, Danica Patrick hopes her Clash success can translate to this Sunday.Patrick made a statement by finishing fourth, the best finish of her Monster Energy Series career.
"If you are going to have one track where you've had good races, you kind of hope Daytona is one of them, or maybe the one," said Patrick, who has had some of her best success at the 2.5-mile track. "It would be great to get a 500 win. It's great to run up front and we start off with the biggest race of the year."
Kurt Busch has proven himself to be one of NASCAR's Top 10 drivers over the last four seasons. A former NASCAR champion, Busch would love to add a Daytona 500 victory to his racing resume.
The newest member of Stewart-Haas Racing, Clint Bowyer, couldn't stop smiling on Sunday. Bowyer posted the fourth best time in qualifying, quickly self-validating his move to his new racing team.
"It's a great effort, considering everything these guys have gone through all season long, switching manufacturers and everything that goes with that,'" said Bowyer. "It was right where they left off and we gained on it."
Bowyer, who hasn't won since 2012, would love to start 2017 off with a win at Daytona but even being competitive is a huge confidence boost for the Emporia, Kan. native.
"It feels good to be competitive again. I was down here last year and we were way off the pace. It was crushing because you know deep down you don't even have a chance and when you've got a car like this -- a hot rod like this and a team like this -- I've got a chance.''
Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are two other drivers who believe they have a chance in the Daytona 500. Team Penske had a solid day on Sunday as Logano won The Clash and Keselowski finished third in qualifying.
For Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin attempts to become the fourth driver to win consecutive Daytona 500's and the 12th driver to win more than one Daytona 500. His teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing will certainly contend for the win on Sunday, too.
Kyle Busch, who has won the summer race at Daytona but never the Daytona 500, has run extremely well at the track. Busch leads active drivers in average running position at Daytona International Speedway. Busch finished second in The Clash and 11th in qualifying, so it will be no surprise if he can finally add the Daytona 500 trophy to his extensive collection.
Matt Kenseth, a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, would join a very elite group if he could win another this Sunday. Only five drivers have three or more wins in the Daytona 500 (Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty).
While Martin Truex Jr. had a fantastic 2016, the pain of losing the 2016 Daytona 500 will forever be engrained in his memory. Unless he wins the Daytona 500 in 2017.
"I will have to relive that moment the rest of my career unless I win it," said Truex of losing last year's Daytona 500 by a margin of 0.010 seconds. "I've been asked many times about that finish and from my standpoint I like to think of it as being the closest second-place finisher in the history of the 500."
Coming off the best season of his career, Truex certainly has a shot at redeeming himself this Sunday.
"You have to find a way to put yourself in position at the end to at least have a shot at winning," said Truex . "We'll go after it, no doubt about that, and hopefully, we'll be there again battling for the win."
Be sure to tune-in this Sunday to the 59th running of the Daytona 500 at 1:00 PM CT on Fox.