One driver is seeking a revival in the latter stages of his sterling career.
Another hopes a new team will finally bring a long-awaited first title.
And a third hopes a fifth championship will crown his season of saying goodbye.
Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon are some of the key stories highlighting the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ new year. Stock car racing fires back up this weekend in preparation for the season-opening Daytona 500, the sport’s most celebrated race, on Feb. 22.
Under the Daytona 500’s unique format, there’s a week of racing at Daytona International Speedway that leads up to the 500, starting with the Sprint Unlimited, a 75-lap exhibition race Saturday night.
Then on Sunday, the series holds front-row qualifying for the Daytona 500, with the two fastest drivers claiming the first two starting spots. The lineup for the rest of the 43-car field will be determined by a pair of 150-mile qualifying races Thursday night.
Winning the crown jewel Daytona 500 is second only to winning the Sprint Cup title in the minds of most drivers, and no one will arrive in Daytona Beach, Fla., wanting victory more than the 43-year-old Stewart.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, has never won the Daytona 500 in 16 attempts, though he has won 19 other races held at the high-banked, 2.5-mile Daytona International oval during his long career.
Winning the Daytona 500 this year also would mark a revival for Stewart after an anguishing 18 months. In 2013 he shattered his right leg in a racing crash and then, last summer, Stewart’s car killed a fellow driver who had stepped on the track during a non-NASCAR sprint-car race in New York.
“I’m coming off a bad year and a half, so [I’m] definitely excited to get it all behind us and move forward,” Stewart told reporters at the speedway on Thursday.
Asked whether he feared he would never win the Daytona 500, Stewart replied: “No, not until the day that I don’t run here anymore. Everybody has got a shot here.”
Stewart is the co-owner of his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, whose other drivers include Kevin Harvick, a former Daytona 500 winner who captured his first Cup championship last year.
Edwards also wants to win the Daytona 500 to kick off his new partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing, the team he joined after spending the first 11 years of his Cup career driving for Roush Fenway Racing.
The 35-year-old Edwards, who will drive the No. 19 Toyota for Gibbs, has won 23 Cup races but never the Daytona 500 or the series championship.
“I feel like I’ve really got to prove myself,” Edwards said last month. “I feel a little anxious, a little nervous about it, and that’s nice. I haven’t had that feeling for a long time, and it’s a motivator.”
Gordon, meanwhile, will experience many feelings as he races in his final Daytona 500. The four-time champion, one of the sport’s most successful and popular drivers, announced last month that this season, his 23rd, will be his last as a full-time Cup driver.
Gordon, 43, is a three-time winner of the Daytona 500 in his famed No. 24 Chevrolet prepared by Hendrick Motorsports. But his last Daytona 500 victory occurred a decade ago.
Speaking of popular drivers, many NASCAR fans will be rooting for Gordon’s teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to repeat his Daytona 500 win of last year.
After a six-hour rain delay, the 40-year-old Earnhardt won his second Daytona 500 after holding off Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and others in the final laps of the 200-lap race.
But all the drivers know that though they need a strong car to win, luck often plays a big role at the Daytona 500.
The race is a restrictor-plate race, where the cars’ horsepower is capped for safety reasons. But as a result they stay bunched like a freight train, so drivers need willing drafting partners to gain positions while avoiding multicar crashes.
“Daytona is not necessarily about equipment,” 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne said. “It’s about being at the right place at the right time, keeping yourself out of trouble and having enough friends that will push you to the win.”