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5 things to watch in the Daytona 500, NASCAR Cup Series season

Can Aric Almirola add to Champa Bay’s year? And what will the sport look like without Jimmie Johnson?
Will Tampa-born Denny Hamlin win his fourth career Daytona 500? Can Kyle Busch win his first?
Will Tampa-born Denny Hamlin win his fourth career Daytona 500? Can Kyle Busch win his first? [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Feb. 12

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season starts with Sunday’s Daytona 500 in front of a limited crowd at Daytona International Speedway. Here are five things to watch in the 62nd running of NASCAR’s biggest race:

Will Denny Hamlin repeat (again)?

Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 last February.
Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 last February. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The Tampa-born Hamlin is already one of only three drivers to win back-to-back 500s. A third in a row would be unprecedented.

Related: Tampa Bay ties remain strong for defending Daytona champ Denny Hamlin

Beyond that, a fourth career victory in NASCAR’s biggest race would move him into a tie with Cale Yarborough for the second-most ever, behind only Richard Petty. It could also jumpstart his push for one of the only accomplishments his resume is missing: a series title.

How will Ryan Newman fare after last year’s horrific crash?

Ryan Newman (6) goes airborne after crashing into Corey LaJoie (32) during the Daytona 500 last year. Newman suffered a head injury in the crash.
Ryan Newman (6) goes airborne after crashing into Corey LaJoie (32) during the Daytona 500 last year. Newman suffered a head injury in the crash. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

Newman was leading on the final lap when a bump from Ryan Blaney nudged him into the wall and sent his car tumbling. When Corey Lajoie slammed into the driver’s side of Newman’s car, the impact could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, Newman recovered and walked out of the hospital two days later.

Related: NASCAR’s Ryan Newman: ‘I feel like a complete, walking miracle’

This won’t be Newman’s first trip back to the superspeedway since the crash; he finished 36th at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 over the summer. But it will be his first 500 since the incident, giving him a shot at a remarkable comeback victory.

Can Aric Almirola add to Champa Bay’s success?

Tampa's Aric Almirola won the first duel Thursday night.
Tampa's Aric Almirola won the first duel Thursday night. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

The Hillsborough High alumnus grew up following the Bucs and Lightning, which both won championships in the past year. “Now it’s my turn,” Almirola wrote on Twitter.

Almirola has made the playoffs each of his three seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing and has raced well on superspeedways. His only two Cup victories were at Daytona in July 2014 and at Talladega in 2018. Although he hasn’t won the 500, he finished fourth in 2017 and was leading on the final lap in 2018 and won the first duel Thursday night. Don’t be surprised if his No. 10 Ford is in contention late, again, Sunday.

Will Kyle Busch put 2020 behind him?

Kyle Busch has never won the Daytona 500, but he did win the Busch Clash exhibition leading up to this year's race.
Kyle Busch has never won the Daytona 500, but he did win the Busch Clash exhibition leading up to this year's race. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Few big-name drivers could use a victory more than Busch. The 35-year-old is one of the most accomplished racers in U.S. history but has still never won the Daytona 500.

A victory Sunday would change that and give him a boost after an uncharacteristically rough 2020 season. The two-time series champion didn’t win a pole for the first time since 2007. He only won once and wasn’t in championship contention on the final weekend for the first time since 2014. Perhaps his victory in Tuesday’s Busch Clash exhibition was a sign of good things to come.

What does NASCAR look like without Jimmie Johnson?

Jimmie Johnson announces his sponsorship with Caravan and Team Gnassi as a rookie IndyCar driver at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in October.
Jimmie Johnson announces his sponsorship with Caravan and Team Gnassi as a rookie IndyCar driver at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in October. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The seven-time Cup champion became the latest big-name driver to leave the series when he exited after last season, following the departures of stars like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. since 2015. Johnson will spend part of this season in the IndyCar Series, including the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in April.

Those losses are providing opportunities for the next generation to become stars on and off the track. Chase Elliott took a big step last year by winning his first Cup title. Alex Bowman, 27, won the pole in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Johnson used to drive. This race and the entire season will also be big for Bubba Wallace, who became a national figure with his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The fact that his No. 23 Toyota is co-owned by basketball legend Michael Jordan certainly won’t hurt his popularity.