You don't need to be a NASCAR fan to know that next Sunday's Daytona 500 is a huge deal. That never changes.
What does change, however, is some of the big storylines heading into the sport's showcase event, and this year has its own unique blend of stories, on and off the track. After the Sprint Unlimited and a few practice sessions, this year's main crop of headlines is intriguing, indeed.
Let's review the big stories heading into Daytona, and what we learned about them at the Sprint Unlimited.
Expect a Big Crash or Two
With drivers still adjusting to the new Gen 6 cars, there is an increased chance that the Daytona 500 will feature a major crash or two. After all, we've already seen plenty of crashes with the new model.
From Nate Ryan of USA Today:
In a January test at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, there was a 12-car wreck barely an hour into the first drafting session. A five-car crash about 15 minutes into the first Sprint Unlimited practice Friday resulted in hardly any drafting lessons entering the race. And 15 laps into Saturday's main event, a nine-car crash precluded much of the wild racing expected on Daytona's high banks from happening because of a lack of participants.
I've never understood people who watch NASCAR for the crashes—I'm not into rooting for high-speed collisions that have the potential to cause fatalities, but that's just me, I guess—but if you are that type of viewer, you'll probably get your wish at Daytona.
In fact, this entire season will probably be a bit sketchy for drivers. Eventually they'll adjust, but it is going to take some time.
Don't Sleep on Kevin Harvick
It would be natural to suspect that Harvick's move from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the season would be a distraction for the driver and his team, but that wasn't the case on Saturday, when he won the Sprint Unlimited.
Harvick looked in control on the day, leading for 40 laps during the 75-lap event. And he wasn't worried about any distractions affecting him or his team (via Jeff Owens of The Sporting News):
“It’s our job to control the atmosphere and the things that go around and the atmosphere has been great, honestly,” he said of his team. “Everybody is just working toward the same goal and that’s winning the race.
“We have to be professional whether it’s lame-duck or not. We are going to have a helluva lot of fun just racing and having a good time and doing our jobs. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500, so he's proven more than capable in the past of winning NASCAR's premier event. Plus, we're talking about a man who has finished top-10 in the Sprint Cup standings in six of the past seven years. He's a pro.
Harvick's team swap will surely be a popular storyline, but I wouldn't expect it to actually factor into the outcome of the race.
We'll Be Inundated with "Danica Patrick Is Dating Ricky Stanhouse, Jr." Talk—Get Used to It
One reason this story might have legs is because Patrick has been posting blazing times at Sprint Cup practices. From David Newton of ESPN:
The 30-year-old Stewart-Haas Racing driver topped the second Sprint Cup practice with a fast lap of 196.220 mph, raising the possibility of her becoming on Sunday the first female to win the pole for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24.
Patrick's lap was eight-tenths of a second faster than Joey Logano's top lap of 195.410 mph in the morning session.
"I suppose being the fastest going into qualifying is as good as you can hope for," said Patrick, who was third-fastest in the morning session. "Everything that we do is to make sure we do whatever we can to be on the pole. That's what we all are shooting for.
As you might expect, the story exploded in late January when Patrick finally admitted she was dating Stanhouse. The national media immediately ran wild, mostly because Patrick has an obvious appeal to a mainstream audience.
Now, we've heard people debate whether or not dating a competitor would be a distraction on the track, and NASCAR purists will feel Patrick's personal life is overshadowing the beginning of the season.
Still, if Patrick does make history and wins the pole, that's a story that would be wonderful for the sport.
One way or another, we'll be talking about Patrick for the next week. Get used to it.