Few things in sports can match the euphoria racing fans feel when the command is given for drivers to start their engines for the Daytona 500. The Great American Race is a special event that attracts not only those diehards but also mainstream viewers.
In the big picture, it's just one race of 36 on the road to a Sprint Cup Series championship. The history behind it, thanks to names like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and countless others, makes it mean so much more, though. It's the one drivers dream of winning.
There are no shortage of talking points ahead of the 2015 Daytona 500. First, let's check out all of the important information for Sunday's showcase. Then we'll dive into some of the main points of interest for one of the marquee days on the American sports calendar.
Where: Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida
When: Sunday, Feb. 22, at 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Jeff Gordon Tries End Daytona 500 Career On Top
Ever since Gordon announced this would be his final season competing for a championship—he didn't want to commit to full-time retirement quite yet—the outlook has changed. Moral victories to help build for future seasons are gone. The entire focus is chasing the 2015 title.
Jeff Owens of Sporting News notes Gordon isn't sure exactly what will happen after this season. He said restrictor-plate races like Daytona are out, though. The 43-year-old driver also talked about what it would be like to score the victory Sunday.
"I mean, yeah, I want to win the championship. I want points. But right now it's the Daytona 500. All I want to focus on is winning the Daytona 500," he said. "If I can win it, what a storybook type of beginning to the season it would be."
Gordon has been competing in the season's most high-profile race for more than two decades. It's only the second time he's started from the pole position, though. ESPN Stats & Info points out the last time it happened:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Jeff Gordon won the pole for the Daytona 500 for second time in career The other time? 19992015-2-16 14:00:25
He proceeded to capitalize on that ideal starting spot by winning the race in 1999. In all, he's crossed the finish line first a total of three times in the Daytona 500. A fourth triumph would jump-start his goodbye season in memorable fashion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Attempts To Repeat
One year ago, Earnhardt used a surge on the final restart to capture his second Daytona 500 victory. He held off a late rally attempt from Denny Hamlin to secure the checkered flag. The win helped propel him to his third top-10 finish in the race over the past four years.
Going back-to-back in any race is a tricky task. That's especially true at Daytona because so many things have to break right for a driver to come out on top. Junior is confident, however, as illustrated in comments passed along by Stu Hothem of NASCAR.com.
"One of the other things I'm excited about is I know the 500 car is a whole lot better than this car was so hopefully we can get through the rest of the week," Earnhardt said. "If that 500 car is still in one piece when we put that thing on the starting grid, I've got a good feeling about it."
He's always been a huge fan favorite in the racing community as he's carried on the Earnhardt name. But he'll probably have some extra people rooting for him this time around. Darren Rovell of ESPN explains why that's the case:
Darren Rovell @darrenrovell
Chicagoland Speedway offering fans who buy 9/20 Sprint Cup race ticket before Daytona 500 full refund if Dale Jr wins Daytona2015-2-18 13:32:12
Based on his comments, it sounds like Earnhardt is confident he'll be in the mix Sunday as long as he doesn't catch any unlucky breaks. Of course, once it gets down to those final laps, all bets are off and he just has to hope it plays out like last year.
Which Sleepers Will Emerge?
The last two winners of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson, came as no surprise. Yet there have also been some unexpected victors over the past decade or so. Trevor Bayne, Jamie McMurray and Ward Burton are notable examples.
One major factor for that in recent years is the racing style. The lead changes hands frequently—42 times, with 18 different drivers holding it at least once in 2014—and that opens the door for more chances for the underdogs.
A name to keep in mind is Austin Dillon. Driving the iconic No. 3 car, he started the Daytona 500 on the pole last year in his rookie season en route to finishing ninth. Scott Boyle of Fantasy Racing Online explained why he's a solid pick this year:
Lately Austin has talked about being more confident coming into Daytona this year. He also looks to be more aggressive, which bodes well for him at this track. Also, without the rookie stripes on the back of his car, more respect should be given, and he should have a fast Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet with plenty of drafting help, which could very well put him in position for a top 5 when the checkered flag waves on Sunday afternoon.
Greg Biffle and Ryan Blaney are a couple of other names to keep in mind. Ultimately, there should be plenty of lead changes once again this year. It all comes down to which driver is able to time his or her run perfectly to peak at the end.