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The green flag for the Daytona 500 drops on Sunday. Here’s what you need to know

<i>George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images</i><br/>Dale Earnhardt victorious in victory lane after winning the 1998 Daytona 500.
Sports Illustrated via Getty Ima
George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt victorious in victory lane after winning the 1998 Daytona 500.

By Travis Caldwell, CNN

A sold-out crowd will be on hand in Florida Sunday to watch 40 drivers compete for the crown jewel of NASCAR’s Cup Series, the Daytona 500.

A warm, partly cloudy day in expected at Daytona Beach as fans in the stands are set to see intense racing, with slingshot passing and multicar wipeouts all at speeds in excess of 190 mph.

Here’s what you need to know before this year’s edition of “The Great American Race,” which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

Will another first-time winner make history?

The nature of racing along the high banks of Daytona International Speedway, with the field often bunched in a pack and bump-drafting their way to the front, means practically every car has an opportunity to win the 200-lap event — from prestigious, title-winning teams to fledgling outfits trying to claw their way into the sport.

And in the last two years, the winners of the Daytona 500 were drivers who had never visited Victory Lane.

Michael McDowell, who had spent much of his career driving for lesser-funded teams, was at the right place at the right time in 2021, skirting past a last-lap crash to take his first ever win.

Last year, Austin Cindric, who was beginning his first full season in NASCAR’s top division, successfully blocked a swarm of opponents on the final lap to hang on to victory.

While many in this year’s field are looking to pick up their first Daytona win — or even their first career win — some competitors are new to NASCAR entirely. X-Games star and stunt driver Travis Pastrana will be making his Daytona 500 debut, and IndyCar driver Conor Daly will square off in a Chevrolet owned by boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.

New names in new rides

The biggest story this offseason was the departure of Kyle Busch from the Toyota team owned by famed NFL coach Joe Gibbs, with whom Busch won two Cup series championships. Busch, whose outspoken personality has polarized much of the fan base for years, will line up in the No. 8 Chevrolet.

Busch takes the seat vacated by California native Tyler Reddick, who will now pilot the No. 45 Toyota co-owned by competitor Denny Hamlin and NBA icon Michael Jordan.

Reddick will team up with Bubba Wallace, who has finished runner-up twice in the 500, including last year.

Busch’s replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing is newcomer Ty Gibbs, Joe’s grandson. Last November, Ty won the championship of the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s second division, but any celebrations were tempered as the family suffered the tragic loss of Coy Gibbs — Ty’s father and Joe’s son — who died hours after the season finale. Ty will start the 500 in the No. 54 Toyota.

Sunday also sees the return of one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers, Jimmie Johnson, who will race a partial schedule this season after stepping away in 2020.

Last year’s front row does it again

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman were the quickest qualifiers in last year’s edition, with Larson turning the fastest lap to claim the pole.

And a new season brings more of the same — on Wednesday, it was Bowman who qualified with an average lap speed of 181.686 mph, good enough for his third career 500 pole, with Larson turning the second-best lap among competitors.

However, starting up front doesn’t guarantee a top finish, as no pole-winning driver has taken the checkered flag in first place since 2000. Larson and Bowman were both involved in accidents last year and finished near the back.

Qualifying heat races were held Thursday night to determine the rest of the grid’s starting order. Defending Cup champion Joey Logano and native Floridian Aric Almirola each won their respective races and will start on the second row.

A chapter closes

Sunday’s race will mark 25 years since one of the most famous victories in auto racing history, when seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt claimed his first and only Daytona 500 in 1998 — his 20th career attempt.

Three years later, Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500.

As the sport mourned the loss of one of its greatest drivers, Earnhardt’s team repainted and renumbered his famed black No. 3 Chevrolet to a white No. 29 and added Kevin Harvick as their new driver, an up-and-comer in NASCAR’s lower divisions.

Harvick, who had never previously raced in the Cup series, would earn an emotional win three weeks later at Atlanta in a photo finish. And a miniature ‘3’ would remain on the car’s paint scheme for years, paying tribute to Earnhardt.

Now a former Daytona 500 winner and series champion, Harvick will retire at the end of 2023, leaving only one active driver on the circuit who has raced since the 2001 season — fellow former champion and 500 winner Kurt Busch, who has not competed since July after being injured in a qualifying crash at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

Harvick starts 13th on Sunday in the No. 4 Ford, a ride co-owned by Formula One team boss Gene Haas and Cup champion Tony Stewart. The familiar No. 3 Chevrolet can be seen driven by Austin Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress — Earnhardt’s car owner.

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