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Pennell’s Points: Daytona Set to Kick Off Pivotal 2024 NASCAR Season

Jay Pennell looks at the 2024 season that kicks off Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway and offers his points to ponder heading into the Daytona 500 weekend.


hero image for Pennell’s Points: Daytona Set to Kick Off Pivotal 2024 NASCAR Season

The 2024 NASCAR season is upon us as cars hit the track at Daytona International Speedway for the first time on Wednesday to officially kick things off. Coming off its 75th anniversary season, the NASCAR Cup Series is gearing up for yet another thrilling year.

Each week, we will be taking a look at some of the most relevant and hot talking points in the sport. With cars on track for qualifying on Wednesday and the ‘Great American Race’ set to start at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, it is time for the first edition of Pennell’s Points.

More Attention Than Ever?

With the celebration of 75 years behind it, NASCAR heads into the 2024 season full of momentum both on and off the racetrack.

The 2023 season saw dramatic finishes, heated rivalries, Playoff drama, and historic firsts. To cap it all off, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney earned his first NASCAR Cup Series title back in November at Phoenix Raceway, delivering one of the most popular championship efforts in many years.

The young, third generation driver has always been a favorite among the fans and now he will serve as the face of the sport for the year to come. The 30-year-old driver has a unique style, eclectic taste in music, is covered in tattoos and dates a former Miss Hooters International. Not bad if you're trying to attract a younger demographic.

His personality, and that of many of the sport’s other top drivers, were on full display during the off-season to a mass of potential non-NASCAR fans with the release of “NASCAR: Full Speed” on Netflix. The five-episode series was in the top 10 shows streaming on Netflix in the following days of release, and advertisements for the show - and subsequently the entire sport - were displayed throughout the country in places such as Times Square in New York City.

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Bringing the personalities of Blaney, Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Bubba Wallace, Tyler Reddick, and others to light both on and off the track, casual viewers were introduced to a side of NASCAR not often shown on the week-to-week broadcasts throughout the year.

With the season kicking off with the biggest race of the year, the 66th running of the Daytona 500, the hope is that some of those that casually caught the series on Netflix will be tuned in to the ‘Great American Race’ on Sunday afternoon.

Daytona 500 Remains the Ultimate Crown Jewel

As the sport continues to grow and expand to new markets and new fans, one thing remains crystal clear, the Daytona 500 remains the ultimate crown jewel event in NASCAR.

From the first time competitors and fans drive through the tunnel or step through the ticket gates, there is a feeling and presence that is impossible to shake at Daytona International Speedway.

This is a race that has a storied history and has created some of the most iconic, heartbreaking and career-making events in NASCAR history. From three-wide photo finishes, last-lap wrecks and fist fights, massive crashes, and surprise winners, the Daytona 500 has almost always delivered and the intensity of the competition only intensifies year after year.

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That feeling is amplified throughout the week and especially on race day. The throngs of people, the pageantry of the pre-race festivities, and having celebrities such as DJ Khalid, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Miss America and others in attendance, then the all-important command to fire engines.

There is truly nothing like the atmosphere of the Daytona 500, and that’s before we even get to the green flag to start the race.

Off-Season Prep Put to the Test

Getting to that green flag on Sunday has been the focus of each and every NASCAR Cup Series team since taking the checkered flag and loading the haulers at Phoenix Raceway back in November.

Despite a few weeks off for the holidays in November and December, the NASCAR Cup Series teams have been working diligently this off-season to prepare for the season that lay ahead. There were changes to the make-up of teams, pit crew swaps and adjustments, new drivers finding new homes with new teams, an entirely new body for the Ford teams, and much more.

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While the NASCAR Cup Series may be off track from November until early February, the work never stops and, at times, can be even more intense during the off-season.

That work will be put to the test starting Wednesday evening and the results of that preparation will likely show during Sunday’s Daytona 500.

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Longing for the Return of Speedweeks

With Daytona 500 qualifying set to kick off the official start to the 2024 season on Wednesday night, it makes me long for the days of the traditional week-long version of Daytona Speedweeks.

While the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum unofficially kicked off the season on February 3, last weekend saw the NASCAR teams take the weekend off. The next off weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series will be July 28, following the 22nd points-paying event of the year.

There are a lot of questions and ideas surrounding the future of the Clash now that the three-year agreement with the L.A. Coliseum has run its course.

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Although it seems highly unlikely, my vote is to return the Clash to Daytona, only allow pole winners from the previous season and previous Clash winners to the event, and create a 75-lap feature green-to-checkered with no gimmicks, and run it the week before the Daytona 500 on Saturday night.

Follow the Clash up with Daytona 500 qualifying, and once again allow the pole winner to celebrate and promote the accomplishment throughout the week, building anticipation and publicity around the ‘Great American Race’ the entire time.

Again, while it seems highly unlikely, this writer can at least hope.

Another Surprise Winner?

Speaking of highly unlikely, the most recent editions of the Daytona 500 have seen some surprising winners, with Michael McDowell (2021), Austin Cindric (2022) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earning the Harley J. Earl trophy the past three years.

McDowell and Cindric both scored their first NASCAR Cup Series victories in the Daytona 500, while Stenhouse broke a winless streak that dated back to July 2017.

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Despite many of the top contenders running at the front of the field and battling for the lead throughout the day, the past few iterations of the Daytona 500 have seen massive wrecks eliminate those top contenders and a surprise winner sneak through to score the victory.

Will the same happen again in 2024? Could someone such as Noah Gragson complete his comeback and solidify his place at his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing, by avoiding trouble and being there when it matters most? Could Justin Haley, a former Daytona winner, prove his decision to join Rick Ware Racing for the 2024 season was the right call by delivering a big win for one of the largest underdog teams in the sport?

Only 200 laps (and maybe a few green-white-checkered restarts) will tell.

Bonus: Championship 4 Picks

Each week, I will have five points to ponder about the news and action from the week that was and the week that lay ahead, but since this is the first edition of the column and we are about to kick off the 2024 season, here is a bonus point - my Championship 4 picks.

While no one truly knows how the year ahead will play out, here are the four drivers that I feel will be contending for the Bill France Trophy by the time Phoenix Raceway rolls around in November.

William Byron, Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski, and Kyle Busch.

Both Byron and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team, as well as Bell and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team proved last season they can win races and contend for championship year-in and year-out. I expect that to continue this year as they battle their way securely into the Championship 4 as the favorites.

Keselowski has been hard at work over the past two seasons rebuilding RFK Racing and once again making it a competitive race team. Chris Buescher was able to win races last season and advance into the Round of 8. Now that the organization is in a much better position, I expect Keselowski to return to Victory Lane and once again contend for the title.

For Busch, the move to Richard Childress Racing in 2023 went better than expected, with the group winning three times and advancing to the Round of 12. In his second year working with crew chief Randall Burnett and a renewed spirit from the RCR camp, look for big things from Busch in his sophomore year in the No. 8 Chevrolet.

In the end, I see Byron earning his first NASCAR Cup Series championship and delivering the first title for the No. 24 Chevrolet since Jeff Gordon won the title back in 2001.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

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