Tuesday April 23rd, 2024 11:20AM

The World Center of Racing takes center stage this weekend

By Holly Cain NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There is no season-opener in sports like NASCAR’s DAYTONA 500. More than 200,000 people will fill the beloved Daytona International Speedway this Sunday to watch drivers and teams compete for a life-changing trophy.

After months of offseason preparation, it’s time to drop the flag on the 2024 season. It’s time for the 66th running of the DAYTONA 500.

(WDUN will carry live MRN Radio coverage of the Daytona 500 on AM 550, FM 102.9, and streaming online on Sunday. Coverage begins at 1:30 p.m.)

Interestingly, for all its esteemed and lengthy history, there is only one full-time driver with multiple DAYTONA 500 victories. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin has three DAYTONA 500 trophies (2016, 2019 and 2020). Seven-time NASCAR Champion and recently enshrined NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson will be attempting to make the race as a part-time driver this season, and he has two DAYTONA 500 trophies (2006, 2013).

There are seven former winners in the field, and there’s been a steady stream of new faces hoisting that Harley J. Earl trophy recently. Team Penske’s Austin Cindric won in his rookie debut in 2021. Longtime competitor and fan favorite Michael McDowell scored his first career series win the next year for Front Row Motorsports. And JTG Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. added to his superspeedway record of excellence with his first DAYTONA 500 win last February.

There are plenty of longtime – even former champion – drivers who want nothing more than to join that list.

What a title defense message it would be for the series' reigning champion, Ryan Blaney, if he could score a DAYTONA 500 win on Sunday. And he’s proven himself a legitimate contender for years. This weekend marks his 10th 500 start, and he’s had five top-10 finishes – highlighted by heartbreaking runner-up showings in both 2017 and 2020. He dominated the race in 2018, leading 118 laps, but finished seventh. He won the summer race at Daytona in 2020.

Another pair of former series champions – Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch – are also competing for their first DAYTONA 500 victory despite decades of excellence in the sport.

Keselowski, owner-driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing Ford, has 14 DAYTONA 500 starts, with a best showing of third place in 2014.  He’s won the summer 400-miler (2016) and was runner-up in that race last year. Considering the 2012 series champ’s record at Talladega – six wins – it’s easy to consider the superspeedway expert a perpetual favorite in the DAYTONA 500 as well.

Busch, a two-time series champion and driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, has plenty of reason to feel optimistic about securing his first DAYTONA 500 trophy. This will be his 19th start in the grand race. He finished runner-up in 2019 and third place in 2016. Busch won the 2008 summer race and had another pair of second-place finishes in it. And he has wins at Daytona in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (2007) and NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series (2014).

Last year, Busch scored a 19th-place finish in the DAYTONA 500 after being collected in a multi-car accident – his first year driving for RCR, which claims DAYTONA 500 wins with the late legend Dale Earnhardt (1998), Kevin Harvick (2007) and Austin Dillon (2018).

Of course, Hamlin must be considered a major factor in this event. Although he hasn’t had a top-10 since his fifth-place effort in 2021, he brings a victory in the Feb. 3 Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum with him to Florida – the only winner in the series to date. A fourth DAYTONA 500 win would tie him with the late NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough and be second only to seven-time DAYTONA 500 champion Richard Petty.

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Kyle Larson, William Byron and Chase Elliott also have to be considered odds-on contenders on Sunday. Larson, the 2021 series champion, has had challenging times in the race, with a best finish of seventh in 2016 and 2019, but claims he is more optimistic on the big tracks than ever before.

Byron, 26, has a victory (2020) and a runner-up finish (2019) in the summer 400-mile race at Daytona. His best finish in the DAYTONA 500 is 21st in 2019.

Elliott, driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won the DAYTONA 500 pole position in his first start in 2016 and has led laps in five of his eight 500 starts. His best finish in the race is runner-up in 2021.

Qualifying to set the front row of the DAYTONA 500 grid is Wednesday and will be televised at 8 p.m. ET on FS1. The remainder of the 36 “locked-in positions” for the series charter teams will be set in Thursday’s always-exciting BlueGreen Vacations Duel 150-mile races  (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

Six of the “open” teams will be racing for the final four positions, and that group this year includes former winner Johnson and Daytona summer race winner David Ragan in a third RFK car.

There is a DAYTONA 500 practice on Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET and final practice on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. ET. Cars will grid Sunday for the 2:30 p.m. ET DAYTONA 500.

Daytona sets the stage for the beginning of the 2024 NASCAR Xfinity Series season

Always one of the most exciting and compelling races of the season, the NASCAR Xfinity Series kicks off the year with Saturday afternoon’s United Rentals 300 (5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN) at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s a serious season sendoff for the full-time championship contenders, especially so perhaps, for Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill, the two-time defending race winner. And as much as Hill would love a Daytona three-peat, his eyes are also on the big prize, the 2024 championship.

Hill will again be competing against reigning series champion Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer for that elite prize. In fact, three of the four championship finalists – Custer, Justin Allgaier and Sammy Smith – will be back to vie for the 2024 trophy as will JR Motorsports’ Sam Mayer, who enjoyed a breakout season last year.

Smith will team with Allgaier and Mayer at the perennial championship JR Motorsports organization this season. It’s one of several high-profile moves in the series.

Josh Williams, who will steer the No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet teaming full-time with another perennial championship contender, A.J. Allmendinger, who, after competing – and winning – in the NASCAR Cup Series, will run a full Xfinity Series season in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. Williams and Allmendinger will team with New Zealand superstar Shane van Gisbergen. The popular Kiwi will compete in his first full-time NASCAR season driving the No. 97 Chevrolet for Kaulig and also making a handful of starts in the NASCAR Cup Series with Trackhouse Racing, a combo that stunned the competition and fans by winning his first race in his first try – at Chicago.

Former NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular Hailie Deegan will make her Xfinity Series fulltime debut in the No. 15 AM Racing Ford. Sheldon Creed moves to the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. And Chandler Smith moves to the No. 81 JGR Toyota this season.

Aric Almirola leads a list of high-profile drivers expected to run substantial parts of the 2024 schedule. He left full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition at the end of last year and will share the cockpit of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 with last season’s most dominant Xfinity Series racer, John Hunter Nemechek. Frankie Muniz, a renowned actor who has transitioned to a full-time racing career, is competing full-time in the ARCA Menards Series in 2024 but will also make a handful of starts – including at Daytona – in the No. 35 Joey Gase Motorsports Ford.

A lot of new talent and a lot of highly motivated returnees are sure to make the 2024 Xfinity Series season another thrilling season, with its first always-exciting chapter opening this week.

Practice for the United Rentals 300 is slated for Friday at 4:30 p.m. ET (FS1), with qualifying on Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. (FS1).

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series is always a good show in Daytona

Following a dramatic 2023 championship finale and featuring a strong lineup of title favorites, new series regulars, and new team combinations, the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series opens the 2024 season with high expectations Friday night at Daytona International Speedway with the Fresh from Florida 250 (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Reigning series champion ThorSport Racing’s Ben Rhodes is back and ready to race for a third season trophy for his mantle with confidence he and his No. 99 ThorSport Racing team are absolutely up to the task. The competition, too.

Rhodes earned that 2023 championship by a mere 1-point margin on veteran Grant Enfinger, who lines up for Friday’s season-opener with a new look and team this season. He’ll drive the No. 9 Chevrolet for CR7 Motorsports.

They will both have serious title competition again from 21-year-old Corey Heim, who posted three wins, led most of the season’s statistical categories, and advanced to his first Championship 4 with his No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota team. The motivation will be as intense as last year’s breakout star race for the title again.

And there’s no question: a key championship challenger and last year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Nick Sanchez, as well as another young star, Christian Eckes, will play an important part in the title run.

The 2024 season also sees a high-profile addition of full-timers racing for the trophy. Former NASCAR Cup Series regular Ty Dillon returns to full-time truck competition in No. 25 RACKLEY W.A.R. Chevrolet. Veteran Timmy Hill will be competing full-time alongside popular young stars like Rajah Caruth, rookie Layne Riggs, and Thad Moffitt. IndyCar star Marco Andretti will be spending significant time behind the wheel of the No. 04 Roper Racing Ford – planning on seven starts in the Truck Series and another 13 in the ARCA Menards Series.

Zane Smith is the two-time defending Daytona race winner. Rhodes won it three years ago and Enfinger four years ago.

Practice is at 5 p.m. on Thursday and televised on FS1. Qualifying for the Fresh from Florida 250 is slated for 3 p.m. Friday and will air live on FS1.

  • Associated Categories: Sports, NASCAR News, NASCAR Cup, Xfinity Series, SpeedWeeks
  • Associated Tags: nascar, daytona 500, NASCAR Cup Series, Great American Race, World center of racing
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