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Daytona 500: On Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola and my picks to win

There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team or car so far, so NASCAR’s season opener could be even more of a crapshoot than usual.
Aric Almirola, center, signs autographs for fans during a practice session for the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Saturday in Daytona Beach.
Aric Almirola, center, signs autographs for fans during a practice session for the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Saturday in Daytona Beach. [ TERRY RENNA | AP ]
Published Feb. 16, 2020|Updated Feb. 16, 2020

DAYTONA BEACH — Good morning from Daytona International Speedway, site of today’s season-opening Daytona 500 and a presidential visit. Helpful hint: If you’re coming to the race and haven’t left yet, you should. Like, hours ago. Security is every bit as long and thorough as you would expect.

A few final thoughts as the race nears (listed start time: 2:30):

Related: Daytona 500: This is the biggest void Jimmie Johnson will leave in NASCAR’s garage

· This starts a big season for Tampa’s Aric Almirola, whose results took a step back last year. In 2018, his first season at Stewart-Haas Racing, the Hillsborough High alumnus finished fifth with 17 top-10 finishes, four top-five runs and a win at Talladega. In Year 2, he finished 14th with a dozen top 10s, three top fives and no wins.

“I learned last year, I think, that just hard work is not enough,” Almirola said. “Hard work and preparation and dedication and all those things are not enough. You’ve got to have everything go right.”

Maybe that begins today, when his No. 10 Ford starts in Row 3.

· There hasn’t been a dominant team or dominant car this week. Chevrolets qualified first and second. Fords were fastest in the final practice, and a Toyota won the Clash.

· Denny Hamlin’s path at winning back-to-back 500s got harder Sunday morning when his car failed inspection twice and his crew chief was ejected. The track position won’t matter much given how much things change at Daytona, but that, obviously, isn’t good.

Brennan Poole’s No. 15 Chevrolet also failed inspection twice, leading to the ejection of his crew chief, too.

· Jimmie Johnson’s final (?) Daytona 500 is obviously a story to watch. We’ll see whether his last scheduled run here fares better than some of the other big names who have left the sport in recent years. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked and finished 37th in his last 500, and Jeff Gordon finished 35th in his final attempt.

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· If I had to pick a winner, give me either Brad Keselowski or Kyle Busch. Both are winless in the Great American Race, and both are too good to finish their careers without a Daytona 500 victory. That’s not a good reason, but it’s as good as any other I can think of, given how much of a crapshoot this race has become.