The NASCAR offseason is officially over. The Daytona 500 is upon us, and with it, ride the hopes of 43 drivers all hoping to have their name etched on the Harley J. Earl trophy. Last year, Jamie McMurray started off what would be a memorable season for himself when he won the 500 in a thrilling green-white-checkered finish.
So, what does this year's running of the Great American Race have in store? First and foremost, the most obvious thing will be the style of racing. The Bud Shootout, the Duels and Saturday's Nationwide Series race featured predominant runs of two-car packs. Don't expect that to change by Sunday.
It has been made apparent that running two-by-two is by far the fastest way around the newly paved super speedway. A few drivers have really shined in this environment.
Duel winners Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton have to be considered two of the heavy favorites. Busch has been the man to beat thus far this week. He started off by winning the Bud Shootout Saturday night and followed it up by winning Duel No. 1 on Thursday.
Busch also has found good luck in the misfortune of others. His Duel win coupled with pole winner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s practice crash, has given him the opportunity to be the driver that leads the field to the green flag on Sunday.
Burton has had just as strong a showing. He finished eighth in the Shootout but was the dominant car for the first two thirds of the race and led a race-high 32 laps out of 75.
Making up for not winning the Shootout, Burton bounced back by winning Duel No. 2 on Thursday, by a bumper over teammate Clint Bowyer. Burton has also paced the field in two of the practice sessions throughout the week.
Mark Martin has also shown flashes of strength. While none of his race finishes this week have made anyone take notice, he finished 17th in the Shootout after crashing, then finished eighth in his Duel, he has been fast in practices.
Martin won each of the first two practices of the week and also paced the field in one of Friday's practices. In his final season driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Martin is seeking his first win in the Daytona 500.
The other big story is the Cinderella story of Brian Keselowski. Driving seriously underfunded equipment, with a big assist from his brother Brad, Brian has qualified for his first career Sprint Cup Series race.
The Keselowski brothers linked up with less than 20 laps to go in Duel No. 2 and younger brother Brad, latched right on to the back bumper of his older brother and pushed him to a fifth place finish and a spot in Sunday's race.
While expectations for the 500 remain low for Keselowski, the story in itself is still one that seemingly even Hollywood couldn't come up with, and tell with such vigor.
So, what will be the biggest story that comes out of this years Daytona 500? It could be a surprise winner, or it could be the two-by-two racing. If the big one happens, that is certainly a story, and the whole Brian Keselowski buzz continues to grow.
All of these storylines only strengthen the excitement for the Daytona 500. And, for all we know, the biggest story of the weekend hasn't even been started yet. But the best way to figure it all out is to just drop the green flag and go racing. And that's what we'll do Sunday afternoon.
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