The Daytona 500 is not only one of NASCAR's premier events, but it also signals the start of a new season each year. And although the Cup Series schedule was altered last year (and again in 2021) because of the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn't affected the timing of the Great American Race.
The 2021 Cup Series season will get underway Sunday afternoon with the 63rd running of the Daytona 500. By the end of the weekend, one of the 40 drivers in this year's field will emerge victorious, earning a season-opening win at Daytona International Speedway.
Denny Hamlin has won the Daytona 500 each of the past two years, and he's looking to become the first driver to win the illustrious race in three consecutive seasons. He's starting 25th, but that's an improvement from last year when he began the race in 39th.
Alex Bowman earned the pole position for Sunday's race, and he'll look to become the first driver to win the Daytona 500 from the No. 1 starting spot since Dale Jarrett in 2000.
Here's everything else you need to know heading into this year's Daytona 500.
Daytona 500 Information
Date: Sunday, Feb. 14
Start Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: Fox Sports app
Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
It's no surprise that Alex Bowman is starting in pole position for Sunday's race, as he's always fared well during Daytona 500 qualifying since becoming a full-time Cup Series driver in 2018. He qualified first as a rookie, then he started second in both 2019 and 2020 before earning the pole again this year.
A Chevrolet driver has earned the pole for the Daytona 500 each of the past nine seasons, and Bowman became the sixth Hendrick Motorsports driver to qualify first for the race in the past seven years.
Bowman was supposed to be joined on the front row by his Hendrick teammate William Byron, but Byron was part of a crash during Thursday night's Bluegreen Vacations Duels and will be going to a backup car, which will send him to the back of the field.
The other two Hendrick drivers will be starting in the top 13, as Chase Elliott (the reigning Cup Series champion) will be 12th and Kyle Larson, who is entering his first season with the team, will be 13th. However, a Hendrick driver hasn't won the Daytona 500 since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.
While Bowman and Byron earned spots on the front row during Wednesday night's qualifying session, the rest of the Daytona 500 field was set by Thursday's Duels, a pair of 150-mile races that determine the rest of the starting order for the Great American Race each year.
In the first Duels race, Aric Almirola led 52 of the 60 laps and won the race to earn the No. 3 starting spot. It was the first time that Almirola was victorious in a Daytona Duels race.
"Great way to start Speedweeks," Almirola said, according to NASCAR.com. "This thing is really fast, and I can't wait until Sunday."
Austin Dillon was the winner of the second Duels race, and he'll be moving up to start in second in Sunday's race with Byron going to the back of the field. He used a last-lap pass to edge Bubba Wallace, who had the fastest time during the first practice on Wednesday and will be starting fourth once Byron moves to the back.
It was Dillon's first Duels victory, but he's had success at Daytona before, as he won the Daytona 500 in 2018. This will be Dillon's best Daytona 500 starting position since he won the pole in 2014 (when he finished ninth).
Although Wallace ended up second to Dillon in the second Duels race, he could be a driver to watch on Sunday. Wallace is entering his first season driving the No. 23 Toyota for 23XI Racing, a team that is owned by Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
Wallace may have had a solid showing, but he later expressed that he wasn't satisfied and that he'll be motivated to keep improving moving forward.
"All in all, it was a good night, but I've got some learning to do," Wallace told FS1 after the Duels race (h/t Chris Estrada of NBC Sports).
While it's beneficial to start near the front of the field, particularly at superspeedways, it's always possible for drivers near the back of the pack to quickly work their way up, potentially putting themselves in position to contend for the win. Hamlin was victorious after starting 39th last year, as there have been four Daytona 500 winners to start 32nd or worse since 2007.
So, anything can happen once the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon. Regardless of who wins, it should be an exciting start to the 2021 Cup Series season.