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Long: Crowd, energy return to Daytona 500

The Chevrolets were dominant during qualifying and the Fords were dominant in the Duels. Marty Snider and Jeff Burton have no idea who the favorite is for the Daytona 500, as the only thing that's certain is the unknown.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Emerging from the Turn 1 tunnel at Daytona International Speedway, one is greeted by motorhomes that line both sides of the infield’s two-lane road.

After crowd limits for last year’s Daytona 500, fans are back. Sunday’s race is sold out, the infield is full and the revelry has returned.

“I think the infield is kind of crazy,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “It’s full. Cars are parked in every spot they can find in between campers. I’ve done a lot of running throughout the infield, it’s cool to see how many people are out and about.”

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There’s a new energy for this event. Buoyed by the buzz from the Clash at the Coliseum two weeks ago and the chance for more people to attend events these days, Daytona has a different feel.

“This is how it used to be 10 years ago when I first got into this sport,” said reigning Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell.

A year ago, he couldn’t hug his team in Victory Lane and his family didn’t make the trip because of the pandemic. He was a solo figure in a spot meant for an exuberant group.

“I’m so thankful to have won the Daytona 500, but, man, it would have been so nice to have your friends, your family, your sponsors (and) fans to take it all in because it’s a special moment,” McDowell said.

His family is here this year. And so are many others. Michael Jordan, co-owner of 23XI Racing, is at the track. Floyd Mayweather, co-owner of The Money Team Racing, is expected to be here Sunday.

So many pit passes have been issued that pit road is expected to be as packed before the race as it was prior to the 2020 Daytona 500, when the President gave the command to fire engines.

There is excitement even among the angst in the garage. Supply chain issues have limited teams to how many Next Gen cars they have put together. Not all teams had backup cars this week at Daytona.

Thursday’s qualifying races were docile — even with Joey Logano’s crash on the last lap — as drivers took care of their cars. Cautious racing could happen again for part of the 500, but drivers won’t be courteous the closer to the finish.

Drivers will have other challenges. The Next Gen car reacts differently in the draft. The qualifying races showed how easily a car could be dropped from the back of the pack. Those races also showed how Fords could push each other in the corners and straightaways, something the Chevrolet and Toyota cars could not do as well.

Maybe the new car will help Brad Keselowski, a driver/owner at RFK Racing, win his first Daytona 500. He’s winless in 12 Daytona 500 starts. He got this week off to a good start by winning his qualifying race Thursday. Teammate Chris Buescher won the other qualifying race. But the next day, NASCAR confiscated the wheels from RFK Racing and Team Penske for further inspection.

Keselowski’s woes in the Daytona 500 aren’t uncommon for former Cup champions. Martin Truex Jr. is winless in 17 Daytona 500 starts. Kyle Busch is winless in 16 Daytona 500s. Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson, who starts on the pole, has never finished better than seventh in eight previous Daytona 500s.

The dominant driver has been Denny Hamlin, who has won three of the past six Daytona 500s. Can he make it four in the past seven?

“I think it’s just execution and just being strategic with your moves and how you manage the race,” Hamlin said of his success in this race. “A lot of it is going to boil down to is just not making mistakes, and if you do make mistakes, make sure they’re early where you can recover, because I think it will be a little bit difficult to recover if it happens late.”

Sunday’s race also includes a former Formula 1 champion. Jacques Villeneuve won the 1997 F1 title. He also won the 1995 Indianapolis 500.

The 50-year-old Villeneuve said making this race “ranks super high” among his career achievements.

The race also features the three drivers going for Cup rookie of the year honors: Austin Cindric (23 years old), Harrison Burton (21) and Todd Gilliland (21).

Former champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are the only Cup drivers still competing who were in this race 20 years ago. That day in 2002, they raced against Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney and Jeff Burton. Today, Harvick and Busch will race against the sons of those drivers: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Harrison Burton.

“I guess I’m in their dad’s position now of being in their shoes at the twilight of my career,” the 46-year-old Harvick told NBC Sports. “It’s fun to see the generations of racers coming through. Obviously, those guys, I have been around all of them for a while now and seen them all grow up. It’s been interesting to watch. You get old fast.”