Daytona 500 2021: Storylines to Watch in NASCAR's Season Opener

Jake RillFeatured Columnist IFebruary 14, 2021

Daytona 500 2021: Storylines to Watch in NASCAR's Season Opener

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Every year, the NASCAR Cup Series begins in exciting fashion. That's because each season gets underway with the Daytona 500, one of the most thrilling events in motorsports.

    On Sunday, the 2021 Cup Series season will open with the 63rd running of the Great American Race. Alex Bowman will lead the 40-car field to the green flag, as the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet earned the pole position during qualifying Wednesday night.

    Chase Elliott is the reigning Cup Series champion. He won the final two races of the 2020 season and will look to carry over that momentum to begin 2021 with his first career Daytona 500 victory.

    Here are some of the top storylines heading into this year's Great American Race.

Can Hamlin Make History with Daytona 500 Three-Peat?

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Only four drivers have won the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years: Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Sterling Marlin and Denny Hamlin. But no driver has ever won the race in three consecutive seasons.

    Hamlin has an opportunity to change that Sunday. In 2019, Hamlin emerged from a crash-filled race as the winner. Last year, he started 39th but still found a way to work his way through the field to secure the victory. Hamlin was also the winner of the Daytona 500 in 2016.

    This year, he won't have quite as much work to do to get to the front, as he's starting 25th. And he will be looking to carry over his form from his impressive 2020 season, when he had seven wins and finished fourth in the Cup Series standings.

    Although Hamlin has never won a Cup Series title, the 40-year-old could soon accomplish something that no other driver has done before.

    "Anybody sitting on the precipice of three consecutive Daytona 500 wins, that's akin to what Tom Brady seems to do," Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson said, according to Jenna Fryer of the Associated Press. "It's a bigger story than just Denny. It's a sporting story, and for NASCAR, for Toyota, it would be huge."

    If Hamlin is successful, perhaps it could also be the start of a championship season for the driver of the No. 11 car.

Wallace Poised to Impress in Debut with New Team

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Over his first three Cup Series seasons, Bubba Wallace has never made it to Victory Lane. But the 27-year-old is no longer with Richard Petty Motorsports.

    Not only is Wallace getting a fresh start on a new team, but the team itself is new to NASCAR. Wallace is the first driver for 23XI Racing, a team that is co-owned by Basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and Hamlin. And while Jordan is new to NASCAR, he's no stranger to success. He will be looking for more with Wallace driving his No. 23 Toyota.

    "He wants winning race cars, he wants a winning race driver and he took an opportunity to invest in me, and he has seen something that sparked his interest," Wallace said, per Fryer. "We're just going to go out and do what I know how to do, not change up anything, not try too hard because of MJ or because of Denny or because of the opportunity."

    Wallace has had a strong week. He had the fastest lap time during Wednesday's first practice session (45.057 seconds) and the sixth-fastest time during qualifying that night. He finished as the runner-up in the second Bluegreen Vacation Duels qualifying race Thursday night and had the third-fastest lap time during Saturday's rain-shortened practice session.

    He will try to finish the week by earning his first career Cup Series victory. And he's had success in the Daytona 500 before, as he finished second in the race as a rookie in 2018.

Could Hendrick Motorsports End Daytona 500 Drought?

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Although Hendrick Motorsports is one of the top teams in the NASCAR Cup Series, it hasn't had a driver win the Daytona 500 since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014. This year, Bowman, Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson will all be looking to end that drought.

    Bowman earned the Daytona 500 pole for the second time in four seasons, and he's started on the front row every year during that stretch. He's driving the No. 48 Chevrolet after seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson retired at the end of last season. Bowman hasn't finished better than 11th in four career Daytona 500 starts.

    Byron was supposed to start second Sunday, but he will be moving to the back of the field after getting into a wreck during Thursday's second duels race, causing him to switch to a backup car. He hasn't finished better than 21st in three Daytona 500 starts.

    Elliott may be the reigning Cup Series champion, but he's still looking to secure his first career Daytona 500 win. His best finish in the race is 17th, which is where he's ended up in each of the past two years.

    Larson is entering his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. He's finished in the top 10 in the Daytona 500 in three of the past five years, but he's never come higher than seventh.

    If one of these four drivers wins, it would be Hendrick's ninth Daytona 500 victory, which would tie the team record held by Petty Enterprises. And although none of Hendrick's current drivers have been victorious in the Great American Race, that could change this year.