Unknowns Remain Entering 66th Daytona 500

Daytona

The 66th Daytona 500 will get underway Monday afternoon. (Adam Glanzman/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With an extra 26 hours of leadup due to rain throughout Sunday, only one NASCAR Cup Series question remains at Daytona Int’l Speedway.

Who is going to win the 66th Daytona 500?

The answer to that question has shifted throughout Daytona Speedweeks presented by AdventHealth, both in terms of drivers and manufacturers.

After qualifying Wednesday night, the general consensus was that the Ford camp was the group to beat, with Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell locking out the front row for the Blue Ovals in Ford’s first Daytona 500 qualifying sweep since 2012.

While Logano has said in the past that “qualifying doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot” at Daytona and its sister track, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, he did tip that it can win over a few friends in the draft.

“When other drivers see that you have a fast car … I really think that speedway racing is all about [your] reputation. If you have a fast car with a driver that understands the draft, cars will go with you more often,” said Logano. “It makes you more confident to put this thing out in the wind. It’s going to pull a lane. It’s got the speed. You put it out front, it’s going to pull the lane forward. That’s what you want.

“As a driver, it puts you in a pretty good spot, you know? When I’ve got the team that I have behind me, with a spotter, Coleman [Pressley], alongside myself who really understands the draft well, it makes the job easier,” Logano continued. “Our pit crew seems to be lights out right now in practice, things are looking really good. We just have to go out there and execute our job at this point.”

Even then, however, McDowell cautioned not to put all of one’s eggs solely in the qualifying basket when making picks to win the Great American Race.

“[Qualifying] does matter for sure, but there’s so much that can happen in a 500-mile race. We all know that,” noted McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner. “We’ve also seen, though, with this Next Gen car that track position is important and it’s not always easy to get. It’s not easy to go from the back to the front. A couple guys have done it successfully. But it’s very tough to move from the back to the front, just because the pack doesn’t build and the draft doesn’t build like it did with the older car.

“Guys with different strategies of saving fuel, pitting within manufacturers … all that becomes very complicated when you’re trying to come through the pack,” he added. “Being up front and trying to control your own destiny is important for this race. … You can have one or two little blemishes during the [Daytona] 500 and still be okay, but it’s harder now [to rebound] than it used to be.”

McDowell’s word of warning was proven right over the next two days, with Toyota – whose best qualifier during pole day was Erik Jones in 22nd – winning both Duel qualifying races Thursday and sweeping the top-eight spots in Friday’s lone Daytona 500 practice session.

Daytona

The new Toyota Camry XSE body style has showed speed in the draft throughout race week for the 66th Daytona 500. (Toyota Racing photo)

It spoke to two different philosophies across the Cup Series garage area – having single-lap speed versus having speed in the aerodynamic draft – that often present themselves throughout Speedweeks.

“I think a lot of the [Toyota] drivers remained confident going into racing conditions that the car would work better in the draft,” tipped Reddick, who won the first Duel Thursday night with a last-lap pass. “I personally didn't really partake in that [theory] until late. I saw Martin Truex and Erik Jones working together through the outside lanes, and realized they were able to be pretty aggressive. When we got later in that race, I was able to be more aggressive with my pushes than in the past, and it worked out.”

“Going into this week, we certainly expected to qualify a little bit worse than what we did last year, but definitely not [in] the back of the pack like we did. That was very alarming,” added Duel two winner Christopher Bell. “After Wednesday we didn’t know what to expect … In duel one, we saw a lot of promise, with all the Toyotas having a lot of speed in that race. Tyler ended up winning the thing, which was really good. Then in duel two, Bubba [Wallace] was really fast and all the Toyotas were good again.”

What was Bell’s assessment of what that drafting performance means?

“I think it’s a good showing for the new Camry on the speedways,” he explained. “We certainly didn’t plan on qualifying well, but our hopes were that our new body would race well, and it certainly did.”

Friday’s practice domination by the Toyota contingent was, perhaps, a bit less revealing solely because of the draft and its effect on single-lap speeds around the 2.5-mile oval.

Much like McDowell, three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin was hesitant to put too much stock into one on-track session in terms of how the Daytona 500 might play out.

“It’s more the way it worked out for sure,” explained Hamlin when asked what Toyota’s practice pace meant on Friday. “We had a big tow from another manufacturer’s pack of cars, and that really plays a big factor into what kind of lap times you run here and whatnot. When there weren’t as many cars out there, we ran about the same speeds as everyone else.

“Obviously, our concerns were largely put to rest when the car raced well Thursday, right? I think there’s just a balance sometimes you have to strike [between qualifying and race trim] to be successful here.”

Both Ford (Mustang Dark Horse) and Toyota (Camry XSE) debuted updated body styles ahead of the Daytona 500, which will be carried throughout the Cup Series season.

But what of Chevrolet, which is utilizing the same Camaro ZL1 model it campaigned last year in Cup Series competition as it chases a record-extending 26th Daytona 500 win?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the 2023 Daytona 500 for Chevrolet in a relative upset. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images for NASCAR photo)

After Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s upset last February, the Bowtie Brigade is chasing a Daytona 500 repeat for the first time since 2013 and 2014, when Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports each won their second Daytona 500 in consecutive years.

It’s possible, tipped 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, but a Chevrolet victory could require a bit more strategy in the closing stages than in previous years.

“The Next Gen [car] has really tightened up the field, so you have to be strategic about not making a mistake and putting yourself in a good position,” Dillon explained. “I think transitioning on pit stop strategy has become such a big part of these races now. Getting on pit road cleanly, getting in line, and getting up to speed fast all comes into play toward the end of the Daytona 500.

“We’ve always had to be a little more strategic in how we push and communicate to each other [about] the best way to push with our cars,” Dillon added. “If that comes that in to play for [the Fords], I think there will be a learning curve [for them], first of all, and they will probably wreck a couple of cars if [the new Ford nose] is a little more pointed. Once they figure that out, it will be normal. It’s a little harder, though, when the nose doesn’t line up great.”

That doesn’t even account for the fact that Monday’s Great American Race will begin two hours later in the day than initially scheduled, likely leading to a finish at dusk or under the lights at Daytona Int’l Speedway that features a much cooler track temperature and higher grip level than anticipated.

Could that lead to bigger blocks and more daring moves than usual as drivers vie for a Daytona 500 win?

In short, most drivers agreed that no one will know how they stack up for a shot at the Harley J. Earl Trophy until the race winds inside of 20 laps to go – and even then, it might be too soon to tell, given that five of the past six Daytona 500s have gone to overtime beyond the scheduled 500-mile distance.

But as for picking a favorite before the green flag ever waves? That’s impossible, according to Hamlin.

“There is no favorite in this race,” he stressed Friday. “None. Not even me. We’ll just have to see.”

The 66th Daytona 500 goes green at 4 p.m. ET Monday afternoon, with live coverage on FOX, the Motor Racing Network, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, channel 90.

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About Jacob Seelman

Jacob Seelman is Motorsports Hotspot’s News Editor and Race Face Digital’s Director of Content, as well as a veteran of more than a decade in the racing industry as a professional, though he’s spent his entire life in the garage and pit area.