Chase Elliott faces a lot of pressure as he takes over the reins of the No. 24 car following the retirement of Jeff Gordon. He's off to a perfect start after winning the pole for the Daytona 500 during Sunday's qualifying action. He'll be joined on the front row by Matt Kenseth.
The rest of the race field will be set during Thursday night's Can-Am Duels. The 60-lap, 150-mile races are not only a preview of the Great American Race, but they usually provide a fair share of drama in their own right as drivers jockey for position.
Let's check out all of the important information for the Duels. That's followed by a closer look at each of the races and a prediction for which drivers will capture the checkered flag.
Where: Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida
When: Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. ET
Watch: Fox Sports 1
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go
Can-Am Duel No. 1
|2.||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|3.||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
Elliott, like any rookie, is going to endure some growing pains throughout his first season. He's got a strong Xfinity Series track record to fall back on—53 top-10 finishes in 66 starts—but competing against the top drivers on a weekly basis will be a challenge.
Winning the pole gives him a little extra leeway for the Duel. He doesn't have to race for position, which means he can use the entire race for gaining experience in different situations, whether it's racing with the lead or trying to make up ground. That will be valuable come Sunday afternoon.
Who's your pick in the first Duel?
Jeff Gluck of USA Today passed along comments from the 20-year-old rising star, who's already shown he's wise beyond his years after his qualifying triumph.
"This is a big day, but at the same time, this is a long week," he said. "This is a step in the right direction, but this is one lap versus 500 miles on Sunday."
Austin Dillon probably knows all of the emotions Elliott is feeling. The Richard Childress Racing driver won the Daytona pole in his first full season at the Sprint Cup level in 2014 and went on to secure a solid ninth-place finish in the 500.
His overall results over his first two seasons have left room for improvement, though. He's finished 20th and 21st in the final standings, and while there have been promising stretches during both years, the team is still working to find more week-to-week consistency.
Daytona has treated him well with three top 10s in five starts. A strong finish in the Duel will put him in position to add to that total on Sunday. He discussed his Sprint Unlimited experience on the track over the weekend:
Along with that tandem of young stars, the first Can-Am Duel also features its fair share of veterans looking to earn starting spots on the front few rows. It covers a wide range from big names like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski to those looking for bounce-back campaigns such as Greg Biffle.
The first 10 or 15 laps of the first Duel tend to set the tone for the night. The more aggressiveness, the better from an entertainment perspective. And with less cars on the track than a typical race, there's plenty of room for drivers to make those bold moves.
Prediction: Austin Dillon
Can-Am Duel No. 2
|18.||26||Robert Richardson Jr.|
|21.||78||Martin Truex Jr.|
Kyle Busch put together a magical run to the championship after he returned from injury last season. He needed a lot of things to break correctly without any ill-timed setbacks, which is especially difficult in a sport where so many things are out of your control, and he managed to pull it off.
It will be intriguing to see whether he can match that level of success this season. He's going to catch some bad breaks—that's just the nature of the game—but the entire No. 18 team shined down the stretch last year. That's why he enters the season as the driver to beat.
Busch has also enjoyed Daytona, as NASCAR noted:
As Busch soared, Jimmie Johnson uncharacteristically failed to find a groove during the second half of last season. The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion had back-to-back poor outings early in the playoffs to get eliminated after the Challenger Round.
Who's your pick in the second Duel?
That early exit has seemed to provide motivation. David Scott of the Charlotte Observer provided comments from team owner Rick Hendrick, who stated Johnson's entire group is ready to roll.
"Jimmie's motivated; he's fired up," Hendrick said. "[Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] is fired up. The whole organization is fired up."
It would be a surprise if Johnson isn't right there battling for the title at season's end.
Ultimately, there's a lot of star power in the second Duel. Many of the drivers have been through the Daytona experience plenty of times before, so they understand the importance of using these qualifying races to learn things about the track and their cars for Sunday.
Prediction: Jimmie Johnson