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5 Daytona 500 storylines to watch

Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Steven Letarte discuss the top storylines to watch at the Daytona 500, including if Denny Hamlin can win three straight Great American Races and how he'll fare as both an owner and a driver.

As NASCAR’s offseason comes to an end and teams prepare for Sunday’s Daytona 500, there are many storylines to keep an eye on throughout the week at Daytona International Speedway.

From drivers in new places to others trying to accomplish new feats or feats not achieved in years, Daytona has much to offer this week. Action begins with Tuesday night’s Busch Clash and ends with the sport’s biggest race of the season.

Here is a look at five key storylines:

1. Can Denny Hamlin become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s?

Hamlin is only the fourth driver in Daytona 500 history to have this chance.

Richard Petty won the race in 1973 and ’74. He placed seventh in 1975, crossing the finish line eight laps behind.

Cale Yarborough won in 1983 and ’84. He finished 36th in 1985 after an engine failure.

Sterling Marlin won in 1994 and ’95. He finished 40th in 1996 after an engine failure.

For as immense as this feat by Hamlin would be, Brad Keselowski says that it overshadows something more impressive to him - that Hamlin hasn’t been eliminated by a wreck in those races.

“I work really hard to try to stay out of the wrecks, but I don’t accept it as an inevitability,” Keselowski told NBC Sports. “I try not to think that way. But I also am realistic to know that you’ve got like a 95% chance of wrecking there, which really makes Denny Hamlin’s wins there in the last few years so special.

“I don’t know how in the world he was able to survive all the wrecks. It’s really incredible.”

Hamlin - who has won three of the last five Daytona 500s - acknowledges that the increase in crashes makes it harder to have a chance to win back-to-back Daytona 500s, let alone three in a row.

“The chances of you getting in wrecks are higher and everyone’s car is so close,” he said, comparing this era to previous eras at Daytona. “It’s very, very difficult. I just think that it is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky in that skill game.

“I think that there’s a lot of guys that are very, very good on the superspeedways that just have been very, very unlucky in the last few years.”

2. Can Chase Elliott do something that hasn’t been done since 2000?

No reigning Cup champion has won the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett, the 1999 series champion, won the 2000 Daytona 500.

In five of the last eight years, the reigning Cup champ placed in the top five in the following year’s season opener. Kevin Harvick came closest to reaching this feat in recent years. The 2014 Cup champion finished second in the 2015 Daytona 500.
Chase Elliott will try to break the drought for reigning Cup champs in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). A key could be his mindset.

“There is no defending,” Elliott said of his role as champion entering this season. “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place. We want more.”

He has had some success at Daytona. He won the 2016 Xfinity season opener at Daytona and won Cup qualifying races there in 2017 and 2018.

His challenge has been the 500. His best finish in five starts is 14th in 2017.

3. Ten years after Trevor Bayne’s shocking win, who could score an upset Daytona 500 victory?

“Are you kidding me?,” Bayne shouted on his radio moments after winning the 2011 Daytona 500 in his second career Cup start.

Bayne’s victory shows that anything is possible. Who could be the next Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500?

Matt DiBenedetto is winless in 212 career Cup starts. Should he win Sunday’s Daytona 500, it would give the Wood Brothers their 100th career Cup win and sixth Daytona 500 triumph. DiBenedetto led a race-high 49 laps in the 2019 Daytona 500 before he was eliminated in a multi-car crash.

Bubba Wallace is winless in 112 career Cup starts, but his best series finish is second in the 2018 Daytona 500. A win by Wallace would bring Michael Jordan to victory lane in the first points race for 23XI Racing. Wallace got the week to a good start by placing second in his qualifying race Thursday.

Corey LaJoie is winless in 129 career Cup starts, entering the season with Spire Motorsports. His best finish in a Cup race is sixth in the July 2019 Daytona race. He finished eighth in last year’s Daytona 500. Could his stacking pennies mantra lead to a big payday Sunday?

Michael McDowell is winless in 357 career Cup starts. His best finish is fourth in the July 2017 Daytona race. He placed fifth in the 2019 Daytona 500. He’s finished in the top 10 in two of the last three Daytona 500s.

A win by him also would be Front Row Motorsports’ third victory and first since Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2016. The team’s only other win was in May 2013 by David Ragan at Talladega. That was a 1-2 finish for the team, with David Gilliland in second.

Will a driver with a new team win the 500?

A number of drivers enter the season with new teams. Could they win their first points race in their new rides?

The list of drivers with new teams includes Kyle Larson with the No. 5 team at Hendrick Motorsports, Christopher Bell with the No. 20 team at Joe Gibbs Racing, Bubba Wallace with the No. 23 team at 23XI Racing, Ross Chastain with the No. 42 team at Chip Ganassi Racing, and Erik Jones with the No. 43 team at Richard Petty Motorsports, among others.

The last time a driver won with a team he had not raced with the year before was Jamie McMurray in 2010, when he returned to Chip Ganassi Racing after four years away. Trevor Bayne ran one race with the Wood Brothers in 2010 before winning the 2011 Daytona 500.

Who will be left at the end?

More than 80% of the cars in the last four Daytona 500s have been involved in accidents.

In the last four Daytona 500s, 40.6% of the field has been eliminated by crashes.

Here is how many cars (out of a 40-car field) were eliminated by crashes in the last four Daytona 500s:

2020 — 15 cars

2019 — 21 cars

2018 — 14 cars

2017 — 15 cars

Brad Keselowski, seeking his first Daytona 500, has been eliminated by crashes in three of the last four years. Keselowski is among those who will start at the rear in the 500. He is going to a backup car after his primary car was damaged in a crash in his qualifying race. Martin Truex Jr. has been eliminated by a crash in each of the past two Daytona 500s. Truex is winless in the 500 in 16 attempts.

“It doesn’t get any less frustrating that’s for sure, but you understand that it’s a part of it,” Truex said. “I just look at every avenue of strategy, and what can I do each race. It just seems like each race is so different. You just have to kind of shift and adjust on the fly and hope you make the right decision as far as where you are running in the field and the cars you are around. There’s really no science behind it. It just happens or it doesn’t, it seems like.”