Speedweeks begins on Friday, and the Daytona 500 is mere days away. For NASCAR fans, this is by far the best time of the year.
How close are we to the biggest race of the season? Take a look at this picture from the Daytona 500 official account:
Can you see the winner doing donuts to wreck that hard work once it's finally completed? Yes, real NASCAR action is close.
And with a full week of coverage from the Sprint Unlimited race to the Budweiser Duels and every lower-series run taking place on the track, the Daytona 500 isn't the only reason for excitement leading up to the big race.
Before the engines officially start down in Daytona, here's a look at all the information fans need to know, along with some early predictions and storylines for NASCAR's first race.
What: 56th Annual Daytona 500
Where: Daytona, Fla.
When: Sunday, Feb. 23, 1 p.m.
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Storylines to Watch
Can Danica Patrick Silence Her Critics?
After just one year of racing full time in NASCAR, Danica Patrick hasn't earned a win and has just one top-10 finish under her belt.
With numbers like that, she's garnered quite a bit of attention, along with some critics. One of those skeptics is NASCAR legend Richard Petty, according to a report from Wheels.ca. When asked whether or not Patrick would ever win a race, Petty responded:
(Only) if everybody else stayed home [...] If she’d have been a male, nobody would ever know if she’d showed up at a race track. This is a female deal that’s driving her. There’s nothing wrong with that, because that’s good PR for me. More fans come out, people are more interested in it. She has helped to draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.
Patrick by no means is deserving of high praise after her first season, but she was also just a rookie. It takes drivers a little longer than one season to get going, unless you're Petty, right? Wrong.
In his first two seasons, Petty raced in 30 races and did not win a single one. While he did come away with 10 top-10 finishes, his first win would not come until his third season at the age of 23, according to Racing Reference.
After winning the pole last season, Patrick wasn't able to cash in with a win at the Daytona 500. But with a lot of criticism coming into the start of her second season, it will be interesting to see how the 31-year-old responds.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Last Season With Steve Letarte
OK, so this isn't officially his last season a driver, but this race will start a season where there will no doubt be a changing of the guard for Earnhardt Jr.
Steve Letarte made the announcement back in January that he will be stepping down as the crew chief to take a role as an analyst. While the declaration caught Earnhardt Jr. by surprise, Letarte believes the team has a good shot at winning this season, according to Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com:
I think what makes this situation unique compared to any driver situation I can remember is I'm not going to crew chief for another organization. I'm not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, I’m working on filling a trophy case. And to do that we have to win.
The story will still be a huge one heading into the Daytona 500, as it will still be fresh for some race fans. But with Earnhardt Jr.'s success on superspeedways, he could steal the headlines at the end of the race as well.
After posting 10 top-five finishes both last season and in 2012, Earnhardt, Jr. looks primed to have his best season in 2014. With Letarte still calling the shots, expect the same amount of success, if not more, for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Early Prediction for Winner
Without the pole being won and the Budweiser Duels still a week away, it's difficult to call who will pull out the Daytona 500.
But with a lot riding on this season, Earnhardt Jr. is my early pick to win the whole thing. The 2004 winner and three-time runner-up could get the year started off right with a huge win on NASCAR's biggest stage 10 years after his first time in Daytona's winner circle.
Though he is typically the bride's maid and never the bride, the 39-year-old has confidence heading into the season that he will win it all this season, according to Tom Jenson of Fox Sports:
I feel like I am on the verge of breaking through and having possibly one of my best seasons. Maybe it's just the stars aligning or fate that they're making these changes and maybe we just have the type of season we need to have to be the guy at Homestead holding the trophy.
With that type of mentality for Earnhardt Jr. heading into the 500, it's hard not to see him in the winner's circle. But with a deep field that includes last year's Daytona 500 and Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, it will serve as a tough test before what Jr. hopes will be a triumphant season.
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