What to watch for in the 2021 Daytona 500

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Welcome to Daytona 500 weekend. 

The 63rd Daytona 500 begins at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday (Fox) as Denny Hamlin tries to do what no other NASCAR driver has done before. 

If Hamlin wins on Sunday he'll be the first driver in NASCAR history to win three consecutive Daytona 500s. With his last-lap win in the 2020 Daytona 500, Hamlin joined Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Sterling Marlin as the only men to win back-to-back Daytona 500s. A third straight win for Hamlin would be his fourth in six years and tie him with Yarborough for the second-most Daytona 500 wins ever behind Petty.

“This is a big opportunity for us and my team and myself personally, it's just I never would have imagined that we'd be in this position by any means, especially five years ago when we didn't have any," Hamlin said earlier in the month. "I always think about — in these situations and anytime you get asked, I think about all the ones that slipped away that I had in control and didn't make the right decision at the end to finish it off. It would be by far my biggest victory of my career and one that I probably wouldn't exchange for anything.”

Sunday's race is also Hamlin's first as a team owner. Bubba Wallace will drive his first official race for Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing in the Daytona 500. Hamlin formed the team with the NBA icon this fall as Wallace's star exploded over the summer. 

Here's what else you should keep an eye on in the Daytona 500. 

AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 10: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Autocare Center Chevrolet, leads Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway on November 10, 2019 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
Neither Kyle Busch nor Chase Elliott have won the Daytona 500. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Champions going for their first Daytona 500 win

While Hamlin has three Daytona 500 wins to his name, there are numerous Cup Series champions still looking to win their first 500. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch have never won the Daytona 500 and neither have Martin Truex Jr. or defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. 

"I feel like I’ve made some mistakes in that race, no doubt, but the last few years specifically I’ve ran really, really strong races and just didn’t have the ability to dictate my own fate," Keselowski said of his recent crashes in the Daytona 500. "I think that’s what you want. You want the ability to know that when you drive a race car you’re making a difference and that it matters, and that hasn’t played out the last few years, which is frustrating, but I know eventually it will and when that moment happens we need to capitalize.”

While Keselowski and Busch have won the summer race at Daytona and Elliott has won at Talladega, Truex is looking for his first win at either Daytona or Talladega in 64 Cup Series starts, though he lost to Hamlin by inches in a photo finish at the end of the 2016 Daytona 500.

"We’ve been really close," Truex said. "I think for us, trying how to be better at speedway racing is something in general that we’ve worked on over the last handful of years.I feel like we have made some gains there for sure, but still not getting the results that we want. Still working hard on it, and I think for us, the biggest thing is trying to figure out a way to get to the end of the race, and that’s the biggest thing. I feel like every time we make it to the end of one of these speedway races, we’re in the hunt and we have a chance."

[Betting preview: Hamlin is the clear favorite]

Will there be an underdog story?

A big-name driver has tended to win the Daytona 500 in recent years. None of the winners since Trevor Bayne’s shocking win in 2011 have been surprises. But the race has produced the best finish of the season for underdog drivers and teams lately. And there's no reason to think that will change in 2021.

Who will that underdog be? There are a lot of options. Ryan Preece, who finished 8th in his first Daytona 500 in 2019, has a fast car and is only driving part-time in 2021 for JTG-Daugherty Racing. Daniel Suarez also seemingly has a speedy car. He could be in position to score the best finish of the season for his new Trackhouse Racing team.

Don't bet against a car from Front Row Motorsports getting a top-10 either. A driver in a FRM-prepared car has finished in the top 10 of the Daytona 500 in each of the past three seasons. That's an impressive run given that Front Row's drivers have just 12 top 10s over the past three seasons.

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The best offense is good defense

You have to drive aggressively to win the Daytona 500. You're not getting the win in NASCAR's most famous race without making a few bold moves. But you have to defend aggressively too. The best drivers at Daytona and Talladega are the ones who are the most proficient blockers.

Cars pass each other at Daytona thanks to the aerodynamic effects of the draft. A car behind another car can go faster because there's less air resistance ahead thanks to the spoiler from the car ahead. That means cars quickly close in on each other. 

A driver has to anticipate when those runs are happening both to him and against him. And he has to be proactive regarding the runs against him. If a driver waits to see a car closing quickly from behind him to react, he'll get himself wrecked.

That anticipation is going to be key over the final laps of the race. Thursday night's qualifying races showed that the driver in the lead in the late laps was vulnerable to a huge run and a potential pass from the cars in second and third. Aric Almirola was able to play defense enough to stay in the lead in the first qualifying race while Wallace passed and then got passed over the final half lap of the second race.

Wallace had an opportunity to play some last-ditch defense on Austin Dillon as they headed to the checkered flag. He could have swung down dramatically to try to cut Dillon's car off. He didn't, knowing full well that he could have caused a big crash.

That was the smart move on Thursday night. It was just a qualifying race. But if that type of scenario unfolds again on Sunday don't expect Wallace — or whoever is in that position —to be that pragmatic with a Daytona 500 on the line. 

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