Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the 2016 Daytona 500

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2016

Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the 2016 Daytona 500

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Great American Race, the 58th driving of the Daytona 500, isn’t so much a race (though it is) as a symbolic event.

    It’s the unofficial start of spring. It ignites the new NASCAR season.

    You hear people inside and outside of the sport call it the “Super Bowl of NASCAR," but it isn’t. The Super Bowl, while an event of similar magnitude relative to its sport, crowns a champion.

    The Daytona 500 is Opening Day where the winner becomes immortalized, though by no means a champion. It is the one race a driver wants to win, so perhaps the Daytona 500 does have something in common with the Super Bowl.

    Ah, it’s all confusing. Why don’t we drill down on some storylines?

    From a 20-year-old pole sitter to oil slicks, read on for this year’s storylines from Daytona Beach.

When Will We See Tony Stewart Again?

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    One thing is for certain: Tony "Smoke" Stewart will end his career without winning a Daytona 500.

    An ATV accident put that dream to rest when he suffered a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra. Stewart is no stranger to extracurricular motoring, and this last bout cost him a chance at the Great American Race.

    "I wouldn't say 'poor baby.' We've been through a lot worse than this," Stewart said in Zach Albert’s NASCAR.com story. "This is just another bump in the road."

    Smoke will return, but nobody knows when.

    Stewart won’t have the farewell tour that Jeff Gordon had last year, one that bordered on the absurd. Even Gordon looked a bit nonplussed when he received Shetland ponies as a parting gift at Texas Motor Speedway.

    Granted, Gordon transcended the sport and ushered in a new wave of money and sponsorships like Tiger Woods did for golf, but ponies? Anyway, don’t expect Smoke to get the warm-and-fuzzy treatment though his absence will be felt at Daytona.

    But as teammate and employee Kurt Busch said, per FoxSports.com's Jared Turner, Stewart should come back strong to finish his career.

    "We saw some relief for Tony last year when he announced his retirement, the commitment to not race Sprint Cup full time. It just created a smile. It created a lighter footprint, so to speak, for Tony when he was walking around the race shop,” Busch said. "He's got so much ahead of him, yet he's accomplished so much, that he's not going to let this get in his way."

    That may translate into a berth in the Chase for Stewart, though some time after the 500.

Will the Oil Slick Affect the Race?

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Ty Dillon’s No. 95 car leaked oil on the track during practice, setting off a chain reaction that busted up a lot of cars.

    Kyle Larson (a contender), Michael Waltrip (not a contender) and Ryan Newman (possibly a contender) suffered damages.

    "I hate that it tore-up racecars," Dillon said, per Jeff Wackerlin of MRN.com. "I couldn’t do anything to make it any different. We were just getting the pack going. It was unfortunate for everybody involved. … We have time to get everything fixed, and I just hope the other guys do, too.”

    Waltrip and Larson must use backup cars, and that sends them to the back of the field. The other drivers affected by the oil will try to fix the damages.

    Either way, this incident may significantly affect the outcome of the race.

Kyle Busch Returns to Daytona

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Kyle Busch broke his leg a year ago at Daytona International Speedway, and when he returned after several weeks, he saddled up for a disappointing 17th at Daytona in July.

    "It’s crazy the way that all went down," Busch said, per Pete Pistone of MRN.com. "It’s still a story we're talking about."

    Busch has finished fourth in the Great American Race three times. With one win at Daytona—the 2013 summer race—Busch proved he can win there.

    Per Pistone, Busch noted that last year wasn't the way you draw up the start of a season, but:

    ...things turned the corner well. I got through rehab, got back in the racecar and won some races—three in a row, at one point. To be Sprint Cup champion at the end of the season was spectacular. We’d love nothing more than to continue our championship celebration all the way through this weekend by winning the Daytona 500.

    Busch does have a tendency to get himself into trouble, so it if he plays it conservatively, he could give Joe Gibbs his first 500 win in 23 years.

Can Chase Elliott Pull off a Miracle at Daytona?

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    Associated Press

    Chase Elliott stole all the headlines by becoming the youngest driver ever to win the pole at the Daytona 500.

    Three of the past four years have all gone to a surprising winner. Danica Patrick won it in 2013, Austin Dillon in 2014 and now Elliott in 2016.

    Elliott takes over for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24, which, one surmises, comes with its own set of pressures.

    “You know, it’s an honor to have the opportunity to drive the 24,” Elliott said, per Peter Kerasotis of the New York Times. “Everyone has been very supportive. I’m very appreciative. But once you get in, you can’t see what number is on the outside. You’re just trying to go as fast as you can.”

    He can’t see the number, but I bet he can feel those 24s on the side panels smothering him.

    Dale Jarrett was the last pole winner to take checkers at Dayton International Speedway (2000), so while this isn’t exactly like winning the Par-3 Contest at Augusta National Golf Club, it doesn’t appear to help in winning the most coveted race in all of NASCAR.

Will Joe Gibbs Racing Return to Victory Lane?

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    Associated Press

    The most powerful team in NASCAR is Joe Gibbs Racing. It won 14 races in 2015 with its four drivers.

    ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass writes, “As is the danger of any organization that ends the previous season on top, the main challenge is if they don't pick up where they left off, frustration will boil.”

    Do you want to guess the last time—and only time—JGR has won the Daytona 500? I’m not going to say who was president at the time because that’s trite and annoying and, let’s face it, lazy. Nirvana was still its triangulated self in 1993.

    Dale Jarrett won that race, which neatly ties him to the Elliott blurb above.

    Matt Kenseth, sitting outside the pole, seems like a great pick to do it.

Will a New Crew Chief Set Denny Hamlin Free?

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin has been so close to winning a Sprint Cup. There was the choke of 2010 when he saw a 33-point lead shrink to 15 then to nothing.

    He’s had a tripod of crew chiefs of late, and the latest is Mike Wheeler, a mainstay around the Joe Gibbs garages.

    "We had such a long drought of not winning a championship," Hamlin said, per Dan Gelston of the Associated Press story, via Newsday.com. "That pressure was starting to build and the frustration probably from Joe Gibbs Racing is starting to get felt from everyone, so we got that done and now it's just like, 'OK, guys, let's win the 500.' "

    Will Wheeler pay dividends for the No. 11 car? Wheeler has the horse; Hamlin merely needs to steer him straight.

Will Joey Logano Win Consecutive Daytona 500s?

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    Associated Press

    The short answer is no.

    The last driver to repeat was Sterling Martin in 1994 and 1995. In fact, only three drivers have ever won back-to-back 500s. Martin, Cale Yarborough in 1983 and 1984 and Richard Petty in 1973 and 1974.

    It’s unlikely Logano can pull it off, but let’s not forget that he has won the most races over the past two years (11).

    Yes, Kevin Harvick has been the most dominant car lap-to-lap over that same span, but when it matters most, Logano has burnt out more tires than any driver since the beginning of 2014.

    So, this race will be more of a signifier of Logano’s readiness to hoist the Sprint Cup at the end of the season. He made it to Homestead in 2014 and was the favorite entering the eliminator round in 2015; now, it’s a matter of finishing.

    “We don’t have the (Cup) trophy,” Logano said in David Scott’s story for the Charlotte Observer. “We were close. We know how to do it. It’s not going to be a fluke when it happens. We just have to go out and do it.”

Can Dale Earnhhardt Jr. Dominate Daytona?

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    Associated Press

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters his second season with Greg Ives as crew chief.

    The two connected on three wins last year including two over restrictor-plate tracks.

    Chances are Junior is the favorite to win the Great American Race. Yes, having two 500s in his breast pocket makes him a threat, but when you look at the numbers, he’s simply better than anyone at Daytona.

    David Smith, founder of MotorsportsAnalytics.com and writing for the Washington Post said:

    Last year, Earnhardt scored 245 positive passes in the Daytona 500, per NASCAR’s Loop Data. That served as Earnhardt’s highest passing total of the season. He averaged 86.2 passes per race across 36 races last year. His ability to pass and defend position at an efficient rate will be an integral part of his attempt for a third victory in an event that sees an abnormal amount of position jockeying.

    Among other things like strong restarts and a low probability of joining the Big One, Junior is one of the five very live favorites to win Sunday.

    Stats came from Racing-Reference.info

    The comment section is for you. Have at it. If you want to reach me, you can via email or ping me on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.