Jimmie Johnson begins the sixth Sprint Cup championship defense of his illustrious career as NASCAR revs up for the new season at the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in nine short days.
Johnson leads a loaded field that prepares to tackle NASCAR’s new rules and qualifications for the Chase.
The 38-year-old Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools driver was out of NASCAR’s ultimate winners circle for two straight years before running away with the title in 2013 with six wins and 16 top 5 finishes. Even in those two title-absent years, Johnson still finished no lower than sixth in the final standings.
Pennzoil Platinum’s Matt Kenseth finished a mere 19 points back of Johnson last season, despite three top-five finishes to end the season and posting a NASCAR-best seven wins. A 20th place finish in Talladega and 23rd finish in Phoenix were the only things keeping Kenseth from his first career Chase Cup. Still his second place overall close to the year was the best of Kenseth’s career, and easily one he can build upon.
The outspoken and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski had a difficult title defense, finishing 14th overall last season, and his comments about NASCAR’s direction stirred up the top executives and reportedly led to several discussions with chairman Brian France.
However, Keselowski stated during Daytona’s media day that he won’t curb his views, but has instead found the proper avenues to direct his thoughts and complaints.
According to USA Today, Keselowski said, “quite a few backchannels have opened up within NASCAR… which have given me the ability to not go to the media to get something done that fits my personal and professional agenda.
"That maybe creates a situation that looks like a muzzle to you, (but it's) more a moment of opportunity I don't want to (miss),"
GoDaddy.com’s Danica Patrick will make her third straight start at Daytona, a year removed from her record-breaking pole victory. In 11 Sprint Cup starts last season, Patrick wound up 27th in the standings but didn’t lead a lap and ended last year’s 500 in 29th.
Patrick also had to fend off legend Richard Petty’s comments that she won’t ever win a Cup race in her career.
“You can’t try any harder in the car,” Patrick said according to Sporting News. “I think that’s something every driver would tell you. When someone questions our effort level, you can’t try any harder.
“You’re doing everything you can. Maybe subconsciously there’s some motivation, but I can’t tell. I’m giving it my all every single time I get in the car. … It is what it is. People are entitled to their opinions, and that’s fine.”
A back injury marred Denny Hamlin’s 2013, but he looks to roar back after ranking 23rd in the standings with one win and four top 5 finishes. Hamlin also told reporters at media day how disappointed he was with his 21st place finish in Richmond, a track he’s traditionally dominated.
Then there’s three-time champion Tony Stewart who will reportedly return to the track during Friday’s practice sessions. Stewart suffered a broken leg during a Sprint car race in August and underwent three surgeries over the last six months. Stewart is also scheduled to race in Saturdays Sprint Unlimited exhibition, according to reports.
Drivers will start the new season hoping to get off on the right foot under NASCAR’s new rules for the Chase.
After the first 26 races of the season, the field is whittled down to 16 total drivers. Of those 16, the top 15 with the most wins will have a spot in the NASCAR Chase Grid as long as they have finished in the Top 30 in points and tried to qualify for every race. The final spot belongs to the points leader after the 26th race of the season if they don’t have a win.
After each subsequent round of the Chase, called the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds, the four drivers with the lowest point totals will be eliminated until only four are left in the season’s final race, the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After each round point totals are also reset
The race and the NASCAR season officially begin on Sunday, Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. ET.