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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: With Tony Stewart Out, Who Is Daytona’s Sentimental Favorite?

Zach Catanzareti takes a look at the four most important storylines entering Sunday’s Daytona 500:

1. WHAT TEAM WILL GEL BEST ON SUNDAY?

Contrary to some popular beliefs, you must have friends to compete in plate racing. Without them – as seen in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited – you’ll go nowhere.

Approaching 2016, the big news has been the Charter system, a business agreement with 36 Sprint Cup Series teams and NASCAR that locks them into the show each week. Within those programs includes ever-so-important technical alliances that, in simple terms, broaden the power of the largest ones (like the situation between Richard Childress Racing and Circle Sport/Leavine Family Racing).

Partnerships like that will never be more important than on NASCAR’s biggest race day, the Daytona 500. RCR will have two particularly quick cars in Paul Menard and Austin Dillon, as well as Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon on the CSLFR side.

Throw in RCR’s Ryan Newman, add two more alliance drivers in Casey Mears and AJ Allmendinger, and you have a sizable seven cars willing to help one another out on Sunday.

Hendrick Motorsports will be the first team to see the green flag at Daytona with rookie Chase Elliott on the pole position. With Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson it’s safe to say the four-car stable will be nose-to-tail throughout 200 laps.

A similar group in Team Penske has two bright bullets in Brad Keselowski and defending Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano. They’ll join Ryan Blaney and his No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, though that will make for only three machines comparatively.

Joe Gibbs Racing and its stellar equipment will absolutely be a factor when it comes to lifting the Harley J. Earl trophy on Sunday. Denny Hamlin has four straight top-6 finishes at Daytona along with a momentous victory in Saturday’s Unlimited. Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch will join Hamlin in their search for a 500 ring while Matt Kenseth – the old man of the quad – will eye a third in 2016.

Additionally, Martin Truex, Jr. will begin his time with Toyota in a JGR technical alliance. The quality of speed will be a tough combination to top.

But you know who it’s going to be really tough for? The smaller teams not able to participate in these “giant alliances” likely to dominate the draft during the 500.

2. WHO WILL SNAP THEIR DAYTONA 500 WINLESS DROUGHT?

Before we dive into the “who will and who won’t,” let’s run down the top active drivers who have learned the various ways to come up short in the sport’s grandest event.

MOST DAYTONA ATTEMPTS WITHOUT A WIN – ACTIVE DRIVERS

Bobby Labonte: 23

Tony Stewart: 17

Kurt Busch: 14

Greg Biffle: 13

Kasey Kahne: 12

Casey Mears: 11

Carl Edwards: 11

Martin Truex, Jr.: 11

Kyle Busch: 10

Denny Hamlin: 10

Clint Bowyer: 10

Paul Menard: 8

Brad Keselowski: 6

Among these names stand 22 top-5 finishes, five poles, along with a nutty 2,176 laps led in their respective careers at Daytona – but no 500 trophy.

Like many of you, I’m surprised some of the most talented drivers in NASCAR are still on this unfortunate list, especially how reasonable the most recent 500 winners have become. From 2007 to ’10, the World Center of Racing saw a last-lap pass, awarding the victory to the one who nobody saw coming. 2011 – though not decided on the final lap – saw a Cinderella story in Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers.

The four races since have been won by some of the quickest teams in or out of restrictor plate racing. However, as the above list shows, a feel-good, long-sought-after win can come from any corner of the 40-car field on Sunday.

With or without Stewart, it’s Labonte who has put in the most time without a Daytona 500 ring. Finishing second to Dale Earnhardt in 1998, Labonte will race for a 24th time on Sunday, this time with Go FAS Racing‘s No. 32.

Unlike Labonte, who will have his work cut out in the 200-lap event, drivers like Kurt Busch, Biffle, Mears and Edwards will have superior equipment – along with many friends – to get the job done.

3. WILL SPRINT UNLIMITED FIREWORKS SPILL OVER TO THE 500?

You’ve all been to your share of firework displays. The spark is lit at the end of the “Nuclear Sunrise Bonanza” and the show is on.

Like always, however, nature works its magic and the bright colors and jolting pounds come to an exciting grand-finale-like end before everybody heads back home.

(Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)
Brad Keselowski drives a damaged car back to pit road during Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited. (Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)

Daytona Speedweeks annually showcases this phenomenon with a non-points-paying Sprint Unlimited race acting as the fireworks show. The sport then takes a well-deserved nap before heading back to business for Daytona 500 qualifying less than 15 hours later.

In a way, the drivers get their jitters out early so once the 500 comes around, they are in the right mindset to perform for not only the year’s biggest prize but also for points.

Last year’s Speedweeks began with a thrilling, wreck-filled Unlimited. Eight days later the Daytona 500 saw zero multicar on-track accidents until the last lap.

But the point I just hit on is the mindset. The drivers call the Unlimited the race that knocks the rust off. No points, nothing to lose. Even the Can-Am Duels on Thursday night showed some carnage in the final laps.

All winter long leads up to the Daytona 500 and by the time that green flag comes around, the drivers couldn’t have had more on-track time to get ready. Lots of people see this Sunday as a wreckfest but I see it unfolding much cleaner than you’d think. Yes, you can have that exciting grand finale, but the fireworks don’t always have to lead to contact. The drivers’ Speedweeks education should help calm things down.

4. WITH STEWART OUT ON SUNDAY, WHO’S THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE?

On Thursday, Feb. 4, all of NASCAR Nation uttered the same words as the announcement of Tony Stewart’s injury came to light: “Man, what a bummer.”

Indeed, what should have been one of the hottest, most intriguing stories for 2016 Speedweeks will instead be healing at home in Charlotte, N.C., when NASCAR takes the green for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Now, with Stewart out of what planned to be his final Great American Race, the true sentimental favorite sticker is up in the air for discussion. Looking through the results from Pole Day, I see plenty of candidates to fill that void.

The first guy I see is Chase Elliott. Starting his rookie season from pole in the No. 24 Chevrolet just months after Jeff Gordon ran his final lap is, alone, a massive task to handle. Pile on the fact that his dad is Hall of Famer Bill Elliott and Chase has a bunch of people wanting him to grab that victory.

Stewart may be out, but a sentimental favorite still populates the No. 14 in Brian Vickers. He’s back after returning blood clot problems and is probably levitating above the ground in pure appreciation and happiness. I believe whatever machine Vickers could be in, he would be on this list. Above everything, however, all of Smoke Nation wants to have the No. 14 as a winner in their driver’s “swan song” year.

Danica Patrick would always make for a truly popular victory, and most people would have a smile on their face while witnessing history. Patrick is entering her fourth season on tour, debuts a new sponsor Sunday and is under increasing pressure to perform.

This weekend, NASCAR remembers seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt on the 15th anniversary of his death in 2001. To see Austin Dillon bring the N0. 3 to victory circle on this kind of weekend would be spectacular. Dillon has run strong during Speedweeks, won the pole two years ago and would bring back the legend of Earnhardt in a different way than if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. took the checkered flag.

Finally, the Wood Brothers winning the Daytona 500 is a headline everybody wants to see again after the team didn’t get a charter under the new system. Ryan Blaney enters his rookie season with a historic number on the side as well as a dedicated base of fans that spans six decades. A victory would mean the team would be just one win shy of reaching 100 all-time in Cup.