For most NASCAR Cup Series races, the starting order is determined by one qualifying session, but the season-opening Daytona 500 remains unique in this respect and will be again in 2021.
Qualifying starts Wednesday night under the lights for the first time, but that session will only determine the front row for Sunday's race.
The rest of the 40-car field will be set Thursday by the Bluegreen Vacations Duels, a pair of 150-mile races. One of those will determine the order of the inside row, while the other will set the outside row. And with 44 cars entered for the Daytona 500, the duels will also determine which four drivers won't qualify.
In 2020, the Cup Series schedule was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It has also impacted the schedule for 2021, but it hasn't changed the fact that the new season will begin with the Daytona 500 and the qualifying events leading up to it.
Here's a look at the upcoming schedule for Daytona 500 week, followed by predictions for how qualifying and the duels could unfold.
Daytona 500 Week Cup Series Schedule
Wednesday, Feb. 10
First practice, noon ET, FS1 and Fox Sports app
Qualifying, 7 p.m. ET, FS1 and Fox Sports app
Thursday, Feb. 11
Bluegreen Vacations Duels, 7 p.m. ET, FS1 and Fox Sports app
Saturday, Feb. 13
Second practice, 9:30 a.m. ET, FS2 and Fox Sports app
Final practice, noon ET, FS1 and Fox Sports app
Sunday, Feb. 14
Daytona 500, 2:30 p.m. ET, Fox and Fox Sports app
Before the duel races on Thursday night, two drivers will lock in spots on the front row for the Daytona 500 on Wednesday. With each driver getting only one qualifying lap, anything can happen, so it can be hard to predict who will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday.
However, Daytona 500 qualifying has been dominated by Chevrolets in recent years. A Chevy has started on the pole for the Great American Race each of the past eight seasons, including Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2020 and a Hendrick Motorsports driver every year from 2015-19.
So, there's a good chance it will be another Chevrolet driver who claims pole position in 2021. And one strong pick to qualify with the fastest time is Alex Bowman.
The 27-year-old is entering his fourth full-time Cup Series season, having driven the No. 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports the past three years. And he's started on the front row in the Daytona 500 each of those years, winning pole in 2018 and starting second in 2019 and 2020.
Now, Bowman will be driving the No. 48 car after seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson retired following the 2020 season. What better way to take over that successful number than by earning the pole at the Daytona 500?
Another team that typically lays down fast laps during qualifying at Daytona 500 is Joe Gibbs Motorsports. Denny Hamlin, who has won the past two Daytona 500s and three of the past five, and Kyle Busch, who won the Busch Clash exhibition race on the Daytona road course on Tuesday night, are both strong picks for success at Daytona throughout the week.
While Bowman will secure the pole, expect Busch to continue his strong start to 2021 by recording the second-fastest time in Wednesday's qualifying and securing the No. 2 starting position for Sunday's race. The 35-year-old has never started on the front row in the Daytona 500 in his 16 times qualifying for the race, but that will change this year.
With Bowman and Busch locked in on the front row, the rest of the field will be set by Thursday's duel races. And expect more strong showings from Hendrick and Gibbs cars, as they've fared well in the qualifying events in recent years.
Joey Logano, who drives the No. 22 Ford for Team Penske, is also a top contender after winning a duel race each of the past two years.
However, the 30-year-old won't win a duel race in 2021. Instead, they will be claimed by Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, a pair of drivers who have had past Daytona success and are coming off strong 2020 seasons.
Elliott won a duel race in both 2017 and 2018, and he won his first career Cup Series championship last year. He's likely to be the strongest of Hendrick's four drivers again this season and is poised to have more success moving forward.
Harvick last won a duel race in 2019, and he led the Cup Series with nine victories last season. However, he ended up finishing fifth in the standings, so he likely is motivated to start strong again this year as he targets a first Cup Series championship since 2014.
It's beneficial to start near the front of the field for the Daytona 500, and that's what these drivers will do. However, as Hamlin proved last year (when he started at the rear of the field and went on to win the race), anything can happen once Sunday arrives.
Predictions: Bowman, Busch qualify first and second; Elliott, Harvick win duel races.