Today (hopefully), for the 54th year, the top-tier NASCAR teams embark on ther journey to try to claim the biggest prize in all of stock car racing: a triumph in the Daytona 500.
Rain threatens to put a literal damper on everyone's dreams for the day, as the forecast is quite ugly and calls for an 80% chance of rain both today and tomorrow. As Kris Willis noted earlier, the 500 has never once been postponed from its scheduled date. That streak is in heavy jeopardy, but race fans are an optimistic bunch. We're going to go ahead with our stories to watch post as though things are bright and sunny in central Florida and there is zero chance we won't be crowning a champion of the Great American Race.
With that, here some things to watch for in today's Daytona 500.
Can Tony Stewart finally break through and win the Daytona 500? That seems to have been the number one question asked this week. Can the defending Sprint Cup champion win the biggest race in our sport on his 14th try? Stewart is off to a good start, finishing second in last Saturday's Budweiser Shootout and winning his Gatorade Duel Thursday. He hit a bump in Saturday's Nationwide race, crashing in the last turn as he sought his fifth-straight win in that event, finishing eighth. Stewart is the only three-time champion without a 500 victory, but it took fellow three-timer Darrell Waltrip 17 tries and seven-time titlist Dale Earnhardt 20 before they won the race, each win coming with their championships well in the rearview mirror. A Daytona 500 victory won't define Stewart's legacy - he's a sure-fire NASCAR Hall of Famer, perhaps first ballot, and no active driver matches his ability to win in a variety of race cars - but until he wins it, it stands as a glaring omission for the driver, his team, and his fans.
Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. end his 129-race winless drought with a second 500 victory? Earnhardt won the '04 race on his fifth try, denying Stewart. The sport's most popular driver has had several other strong and stirring performances in the 500, but has yet to revisit victory lane. He hasn't seen a Sprint Cup victory lane in 129 races, dating back to the Lifelock 400 at Michigan in June 2008. The streak's days seemed numbered, as Earnhardt's Steve Letarte-led team was close to winning several times in 2011. It very well could meet it's conclusion today, to the delight of "Junior Nation."
Can A.J. Allmendinger or another winless driver continue the weekend's trend? First-time winners are in vogue this weekend. Unheralded John King won Friday night's Camping World Truck Series event, and James Buescher claimed his maiden Nationwide Series triumph Saturday. A.J. Allmendinger highlights the list of drivers still seeking a victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and he has proven a more-than-capable drafter. David Gilliland finished third in last year's race and would be a Cinderella story on the level of Derrike Cope's 1990 win. Seven Daytona 500s have marked the first win in a driver's career, most recently for Trevor Bayne last season.
Jimmie Johnson has struggled mightily in the 500 since winning in 2006, can he break the slump? Johnson's Daytona 500 mounts have usually found themselves spun around backwards, with more than a little bit of crumpled sheetmetal, since he went to victory lane at the 2006 race. Johnson crashed out of the 2007 race and retired with a broken rear end sustained in the 2010 race. He has been involved in a multi-car accident in each of the other years since his 500 win. His futility in the biggest race of the year hasn't hurt him much, obviously, as he won the title each year from '07-10 and was in the hunt in 2011. Chad Knaus was not on the pit box for the 2006 win, having been suspended by NASCAR, and with another potential penalty looming from the inspection infractions last Friday, Johnson hight have added incentive to get his crew chief into Daytona's victory lane.
There are plenty of other stories to watch in today's event, 43 in fact, one for each car in the starting grid. SB Nation Atlanta will be following all of them when the 54th annual Daytona 500 goes green hopefully just after 1 p.m.