Daytona 500 2016: Storylines to Watch in NASCAR's Season Opener

Mike ChiariFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2016

Chase Elliott (24) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (88) lead the field at the start of the first of two qualifying races for Sunday's NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Terry Renna/Associated Press

The Daytona 500 is a true spectacle on a yearly basis, but the 2016 edition is arguably even more intriguing than usual due to the sheer amount of compelling storylines in place for NASCAR fans to follow.

Much of the field has a legitimate chance to take the checkered flag Sunday, including both wily veterans and eager rookies. While the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are out of the picture due to retirement and injury, respectively, youngsters such as Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are hoping to make an instant impact.

That won't be easy, though, as accomplished superstars like Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch appear to have excellent cars capable of entering victory lane.

Ahead of the 58th running of the Great American Race, here is a closer look at some of the biggest storylines worth keeping an eye on at Daytona.


Where: Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida

When: Sunday, Feb. 21, at 1 p.m. ET

Watch: Fox


Top Storylines to Watch

Chase Elliott Starts from Pole in No. 24 Car'videoId=4021262070001

The No. 24 car is iconic due to everything Gordon accomplished in it for more than two decades, but the show must go on in NASCAR, and the burden of keeping the 24 on top now falls squarely on the shoulders of Chase Elliott.

Gordon's run as a Sprint Cup driver started well before the 20-year-old Elliott was even born, but it hasn't taken the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott long to prove that he belongs in the sport's top series.

Much like Gordon did last year, Elliott captured the Daytona 500 pole, which means he will lead the field to the start-finish line Sunday. The big question, though, is whether he can do the same on the final lap of the race.

One person who seemingly believes in Elliott is the longtime pilot of the No. 24 car himself, in the form of Gordon:

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Elliott will be dealing with the pressure that comes along with taking over for one of the greatest drivers of all time.

According to's Bob Pockrass, though, the 2014 Xfinity Series champion is blocking out the noise that comes along with driving the No. 24 machine: "Once you get in it ... you can't see what number is on the outside. [You're] just trying to go as fast as you can."

There is little doubt that Elliott has a car capable of vying for a win Sunday, but he also needs some luck on his side in terms of avoiding a big wreck.

If he can keep his car clean and stay near the front of the field for much of the race, Elliott has a legitimate chance to officially announce his arrival with a Daytona 500 victory.


Dale Earnhardt Jr. Looks to Honor Late Father

Terry Renna/Associated Press

It has been 15 years since Dale Earnhardt died following a crash in the Daytona 500, and while fans have paid their respects all week long, Dale Jr. has a chance to do so in a particularly special way by taking the checkered flag Sunday.

The first step toward making that a reality began in the Can-Am Duel, as Earnhardt Jr. was victorious, which somewhat ironically locked him into the No. 3 starting spot in the Daytona 500, which is a number his father made famous.

According to Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, winning the Can-Am Duel on the exact 15th anniversary of his father's death was big moment for Junior:

It's real special. I was thinking about that. I try not to make too big a deal. I've told all you guys how much I like people to remember dad, talk about dad. You see a lot of people mention him. ... It's pretty cool. I was daydreaming a little bit. I'm guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day. That was special to me. Glad nothing bad happened, that we didn't tear our car up, because that would have been embarrassing on a day like this.

Aside from the emotions that come along with memories of The Intimidator, Dale Jr. is fully aware of the fact that he has a great car that is quite capable of winning:

Earnhardt Jr. is a four-time winner at Daytona International Speedway, including Daytona 500 triumphs in 2004 and 2014.

He also won the most recent Sprint Cup race at Daytona last July, so there is every reason to believe that he is the driver to beat Sunday.

Winning the Daytona 500 is huge no matter the circumstances, but doing so in memory of his father would unquestionably make it even more special for Junior and the No. 88 team.


Kyle Busch Begins Championship Defense

Terry Renna/Associated Press

It seemed as though Kyle Busch's season was over before it even started in 2015 after he suffered a broken leg in the first Xfinity Series race of the year at Daytona, but he remarkably bounced back, qualified for the Chase and won the first championship of his career in NASCAR's top series.

Busch now has an opportunity to put the bad Daytona vibes behind him by winning the 500 for the first time in his illustrious career, according to Ralph N. Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

It was not quite the way we would have wanted to start a season here last time around 365 days ago, but things obviously turned the corner well. I was able to get through rehab and get back in the race car and then go through the season, win some races. We'd love nothing more than to continue on our championship celebration all the way through this weekend.

While Busch does have one career Sprint Cup Series victory at Daytona under his belt, taking the checkered flag in the Great American Race is the main accolade that has eluded him.

He has often had great cars at Daytona, and that is once again the case this year, as he won the second Can-Am Duel and will start on the outside of the second row alongside Earnhardt.

Busch has always been an extremely confident driver, and he has piled up wins in each of NASCAR's top three series over the years, but winning a championship in 2015 could elevate him to an entirely different level.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win back-to-back Sprint Cup championships since 1998, but winning the Daytona 500 would be a huge statement for Busch in terms of showing that he's ready to enter that elite company.


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