Every year when it is time for Daytona International Speedway to kick off another Sprint Cup Series season, I still find myself amazed that the sport starts the season with its biggest race. The schedule is loaded with races at great venues like Charlotte and Indianapolis but make no mistake about it, there is only one Daytona 500.
While other professional sports choose to build to their biggest event as the season moves on, NASCAR puts all of its cards on the table when it drops the green flag to start the 500. I know there is nothing bigger that the Super Bowl in the world of professional sports and the World Series has always demanded its fair share of media coverage, but with the Sprint Cup Series you have a sport that crowns 36 individual race winners and the series champion over a season that stretches from February to November.
NASCAR knows how big an event it has in the season-opening 500, so big that the race has enough companion events to collectively refer to it as Speedweeks. The Budweiser Shootout kicked it all off on Saturday night, but that was just enough racing to once again wet the appetite of the fans who, after a rather short ‘off-season’, were ready to see a little racing.
Qualifying for the 500 is unlike any other of the races that make up the schedule. On Sunday there was the normal qualifying procedure of timing a driver to see how fast he could turn a lap, but only the top-two qualifiers were locked into the race as the remainder of the field will be set after the running of the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races.
The Duel races are held on Thursday and these two 150-mile races sets positions 3 to 39. Every car that wants to qualify for the 500 must compete in one of the two races, even though the top-35 teams in owner’s points are guaranteed a starting position.
The top 35 may already be in the show for Sunday, but their starting position is determined by where they finish in the two qualifying races. Joining the top 35 in starting the race in positions 3 through 39 will be the two highest finishing cars in each of the Gatorade Duel Races that entered the event without a guaranteed starting position.
The next three spots show why a driver1s qualifying speed that he sets on Sunday can become so important. Starting positions 40 to 42 are awarded to the three drivers that have not made the show but are the next three fastest qualifiers. The final spot is reserved for a past Sprint Cup Champion that does not drive his way in to the starting field by either his finish in the Duel races or his qualifying speed. If no past champion claims the final spot, then it will go to the driver with the next highest qualifying speed.
As you can see, just setting the field for the 500 takes up two days at the speedway, but starting with the Duel races there are four consecutive days of racing with trips to victory lane at the end of each one. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series opens its season on Friday with the running of the NextEra Energy Resources 250. The 100-lap event doesn1t wave its green flag until after the sun goes down on Daytona Beach, making the event unique from the rest of the points races being contested at the speedway.
Saturday afternoon, the green flag will come down for the start of the NASCAR Nationwide Series with the running of the Drive- 4COPD 300. The event takes a special feel as the field traditionally sees a large number of Sprint Cup drivers in the starting lineup.
The 43 cars that make it into the starting field of the 54th annual Daytona 500 on Sunday will find themselves competing for the richest payout in the history of the race. The race1s purse is more than $19 million with the winner taking home a check for at least $1,431,325. Even the runner-up goes home a millionaire as he will receive a check for $1,050,075.
Now if all of this racing isn’t enough to get your motor running, then you might need to go have your heart checked. It’s the start of a new season and Daytona will more than do its part to get you excited about the season to follow. Sit back and enjoy cause there is only one Daytona!
Race Preview Event: Daytona 500 Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking) Date: Feb. 26, 1:30 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: MRN Defending Champion: Trevor Bayne