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Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2019 7:48 pm

We’ve turned the final corner of the NASCAR offseason and are finally ready to commence the 2019 campaign. The last two weeks have given us a taste of what’s to come this year as we got to see qualifying and the Advance Auto Parts Clash last Sunday, and then the Gander RV Duels last night.

Between pole qualifying and the duels, the field is set for the 61st running of the DAYTONA 500. When the drivers start their engines and take the green flag for “The Great American Race” on Sunday, the pack will be led by a pair of young Hendrick Motorsports teammates, 21-year-old William Byron and 25-year-old Alex Bowman.

After what was a disappointing season for Hendrick Motorsports in 2018, Rick Hendrick has to be thrilled about the way the 2019 campaign is starting. Not only does he have two of his cars starting on the front row this weekend, he also watched another one of his drivers, Jimmie Johnson, win the Advance Auto Parts Clash last weekend.

Although the Clash is not a points race, Johnson – who until going winless last year won a race in every full-time season since he entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – showed a real sense of relief to finally win. It was great to see Johnson standing in Victory Lane again as he is one of the sport’s all-time greatest drivers. The seven-time NASCAR champion will be hoping to capture the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway again this weekend, but he isn’t the only driver who has his sights set on winning the DAYTONA 500.

Austin Dillon will be looking to capture his second consecutive DAYTONA 500. Last season, we saw him pilot the No. 3 into Victory Lane on the 20th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr. winning “The Great American Race.” This year, the defending champion is hoping to become the first driver since Sterling Marlin (1994-95) to win the DAYTONA 500 in consecutive years.

Dillon’s victory came at the expense of Aric Almirola, who was leading the race until contact with Dillon on the final lap caused him to crash and finish 11th. Almirola will undoubtedly be hungrier than ever to score that victory he came so close to a year ago, and having won the July race at Daytona International Speedway in 2014, he knows what it takes to get it done at Daytona.

Another driver who knows what it takes to score a win at Daytona is Kurt Busch. Busch won the 2017 DAYTONA 500 and is trying to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple DAYTONA 500 wins. Busch, who has the most top 5’s (13) of any active driver at Daytona International Speedway, had one of the best seasons of his career last year with Stewart-Haas Racing, but is now driving the No. 1 car for Chip Ganassi Racing, which hasn’t finished better than 14th in the DAYTONA 500 since Jamie McMurray drove the No. 1 to a victory in 2010.

I’d be remiss if I went any further without mentioning the fleet of cars at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. will most definitely play a factor in Sunday’s season-opening race. Although Hamlin is the only one of these drivers to have won a DAYTONA 500 before, Joe Gibbs Racing is one of the strongest teams in NASCAR.

Of course, the stable of drivers at Team Penske has an argument for being NASCAR’s best team. Joey Logano, who won the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship right here at Homestead-Miami Speedway, is looking to start the 2019 season off with a bang by winning his second DAYTONA 500. Logano’s teammates, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski, are looking for their first 500 win and have been two of the sport’s best restrictor plate racers.

So as “The Great American Race” takes place this weekend, there are plenty of drivers to keep an eye on who could be in the mix. Of course, you never know when the big one might happen and wreck many of the top contenders out of the race, leaving the door open for someone like Trevor Bayne, who won the 2011 DAYTONA 500 in only his second ever MENCS start.

It’s moments like Bayne’s win that makes the DAYTONA 500 one of the biggest spectacles in all of sports. The DAYTONA 500 has always provided fans with hard-nosed races and fantastic finishes like the one we witnessed last year or in 2017 when Hamlin edged out Truex Jr. to the finish line by 0.010 seconds – the closest margin of victory in the history of the DAYTONA 500.

While not every finish will be as close as it was in 2017, the DAYTONA 500 continues to bring an electric atmosphere and thrilling racing each year as the best drivers in the world compete at speeds of over 200 miles per hour around Daytona International Speedway’s 2.5-mile track. Perhaps the most exciting part of the DAYTONA 500 for all of us here in South Florida is that it signifies the beginning of a new NASCAR season, bringing us one step closer to another year of crowning NASCAR’s champions right here at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

UPCOMING EVENTS AT HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY

Feb. 16-17 Formula & Automobile Racing Association

Feb. 18 Rusty Wallace Racing Experience

Feb. 23-24 National Auto Sport Association

Mar. 8 Fast Lane Friday

Mar. 22 Fast Lane Friday

Mar. 30 Performance Driving Group

Mar. 31 Florida Track Days

2019 HOMESTEAD-MIAMI SPEEDWAY NASCAR DATES

Nov. 15 Ford EcoBoost 200 Gander Outdoors Truck Series Championship Race

Nov. 16 Ford EcoBoost 300 XFINITY Series Championship Race

Nov. 17 Ford EcoBoost 400 Monster Energy Series Championship

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