2021 Daytona 500: Start time, predictions, channel and more
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter
It’s time to drop the rag.
If you don’t know racing lingo, that means it’s time to wave the green flag and start the race. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series is set to open with its biggest event, the Daytona 500 live on FOX, this afternoon at Daytona International Speedway.
The cars are nicely painted, or wrapped (most cars are decaled, though there is a theory that a painted car could go milliseconds faster), covering the primer underneath.
And we’re here to prime you for the event.
When will the race begin?
The FOX Sports pre-race show for the 63rd Daytona 500 begins at 11 a.m. ET on FS1 and moves to FOX at 1 p.m. ET. The national anthem, scheduled for 2:47 p.m. ET, will be sung by U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Samuel Allen.
The command to start engines, delivered by Pitbull, is set for 2:53 p.m. ET.
The green flag for the 40-car field is 3:05 p.m. ET.
WWE Superstar Sasha Banks will wave it to start the race.
How long is the race?
The race is 200 laps (500 miles on the 2.5-mile, high-banked trioval), split into stages of 65 laps, 65 laps and 70 laps, respectively.
What's the weather forecast?
There is an 80% chance of rain in the late afternoon and a 30% chance of rain Sunday night, according to the National Weather Service, which predicts temperatures in the 70s. Because of the size of the track, it typically takes 90-120 minutes to get it dry.
Who has pole position, and which cars will begin the race in the front row?
Hendrick Motorsports is on the front row for the race – kinda.
Alex Bowman won the pole, and teammate William Byron ranked second in single-car qualifying Wednesday night. But Byron crashed in his qualifying race Thursday (which determined the lineup after the front row), and he will drop to the rear on the pace laps for going to a backup car.
Byron’s backup car? The car he used to win at Daytona last August and finish fourth at Talladega.
Rain washed out practice Saturday except for a few minutes, so drivers didn’t get a chance to shake down their cars.
"It’s been fast every time it’s been on track, and I think it will be again when we get to the race," Byron said.
Depending on the lane Bowman picks, either Aric Almirola (originally the second car in the inside lane) or Austin Dillon (originally the second car in the outside lane) will move up to take the place of Byron on the front row for the start.
Also dropping to the back on the pace laps: Brad Keselowski (starting spot was 24th, backup car), Martin Truex Jr. (26th, oil cooler change), Cole Custer (27th, backup), Chase Briscoe (30th, backup), Erik Jones (31st, engine change), Ross Chastain (34th, backup), Anthony Alfredo (36th, backup) and Kaz Grala (40th, backup). These rules are in place to control costs; NASCAR doesn’t want teams to change these items after every practice.
Going to the back is not a huge deal at Daytona. In fact, some drivers prefer to run in the back in hopes of missing any big wrecks.
Didn't Bowman almost fall out of pole position?
Bowman had a concern with a brief vibration during his qualifying race Thursday, but the team looked at it and determined it wasn’t an engine issue. If they changed an engine, not only would they have to start at the rear of the field on Sunday, but they would also have to start at the rear in next week’s race on the Daytona road course.
The team used a scope to look at the engine Friday, and the team got in a lap of practice before rain washed out practice Saturday.
"It ran that lap and the up-to-speed lap fine," crew chief Greg Ives said. "No vibration. No nothing. It was just kind of an odd thing with the [qualifying race] 150s. It was still good.
"[Bowman] felt like everything was better than it was on Thursday. Even after we had that quick misfire, everything was good after that. He just was worried about the vibration and the radios. The vibration’s good, and the radios are good."
What are Denny Hamlin's chances of winning three in a row?
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin – the one in the commercials in his "PJs" – has three Daytona 500 wins, including the previous two. No driver has ever won three consecutive Daytona 500s. Only two drivers have won four or more: Richard Petty (seven) and Cale Yarborough (four).
"Superspeedway racing is a skill game, but sometimes you get unlucky," Hamlin said. "We just hope to not get unlucky and at least give ourselves a shot at the end.
"Hopefully you make the right decisions. Sometimes your fate is out of your hands and you get unlucky, but I feel we’re in a really good place, and I like where my car is at right now."
What's the history between Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon?
Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon winning their duels was a reminder of the battle they had on the final lap of the 2018 Daytona 500. Almirola threw a block (meaning trying to cut him off) on Dillon, who punted Almirola and sped away for the win.
"I hope that we're in that same situation," Dillon said. "I'll be happy either way if we're in that same situation on the white flag for both parties.
"I think we'd both say that and try to make a different move, whatever it may be, when it comes down to it."
Dillon’s move last time worked well.
"I think he might [do something different]," Dillon said. "If I was in his situation, I don't know, he's probably going to wreck me."
What's the deal with Michael Jordan and Pitbull?
Two new teams have celebrity co-owners. Michael Jordan is co-owner of 23XI Racing with Hamlin (yes, Hamlin will compete against the car he owns as he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing), and Pitbull is co-owner of Trackhouse Racing.
Both have drivers who have broken diversity barriers in the sport. Jordan’s driver is Bubba Wallace, the only Black full-time driver in any NASCAR national series. Pitbull’s driver is Daniel Suarez, the first Mexican full-time driver in NASCAR’s national series.
Jordan and Pitbull likely won’t run into each other. Because of COVID-19 protocols, team personnel must commit to either the infield or the suites. Jordan will be in the suites, and Pitbull, as the grand marshal to give the command to start engines, likely will be in the infield.
Most of Jordan’s crew has not met him yet.
"It’s a bummer because if this was last year, he’d be walking around the garage, high-fiving, being pumped up," Wallace crew chief Mike Wheeler said. "I know they were pumped up the other night watching us lead the [qualifying] race and almost win the thing."
With Jimmie Johnson retired, what's Chad Knaus up to?
Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, has retired from Cup racing. The crew chief he won all those championships with also is no longer a crew chief. Chad Knaus isn’t even at Daytona in his new role as the Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition. He’ll come down for the Daytona road course race next week.
"It’s my first weekend in this role, and I just kind of sit back and try to help the guys where I can, be a resource for them, observe [from afar] and try to be there to help them," Knaus said.
Ives, a Knaus disciple, said Knaus' influence in his new role will be huge.
"He brings that intensity to all four teams now — not that he didn't before, but the primary focus was [his car]," Ives said. "Now his knowledge, his excitement, his dedication to just racing is second to none, and he's able to bring that to all of Hendrick Motorsports, not just on an individual team basis."
What should we expect from Kyle Larson in his return?
Kyle Larson makes his return to Cup racing for the first time in more than 10 months. Larson was suspended in April for using a racial slur during what he thought was a private chat during an online race. Fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson (who was going to be a free agent after 2020) replaces Johnson in the Hendrick driver lineup. He will drive the No. 5 car (Bowman had driven the Hendrick No. 88 and now will drive Johnson’s familiar No. 48).
Larson spent most of 2020 racing sprint cars – the style of racing in which he caught the eye of Chip Ganassi – with incredible success.
"I never really thought I would get another chance to race in NASCAR, and I kind of accepted that throughout the middle of last year, and I tried to shift my focus toward what’s ahead in my new life of racing a bunch, driving up and down the road," Larson said.
What will be the drivers' pitting strategy at Daytona?
Expect drivers to pit with other cars of their manufacturer so they can all draft together when they go back out on the track. Drivers need a draft to go faster, and the easiest way to coordinate that is with the help of manufacturer brethren.
Manufacturer loyalty is expected when drafting, especially at the end. Drivers are expected to help another car of their manufacturer unless it is obviously detrimental to their own positioning.
"We have a tried-and-true process to agree in advance what we’re going to try and do," Toyota Racing Development President Dave Wilson said. "You saw that in practice, where we intentionally got our guys to go out and run together in a pack.
"Certainly as a manufacturer, that has become a necessary part of putting yourself in the best position to be there at the end to compete for a win."
There are 18 Chevrolets, 17 Fords and five Toyotas in the field.
What will be the drivers' blocking strategy at Daytona?
Drafting racing is all about timing the blocks. When they go wrong, it can produce devastating results, such as what happened last year, when Ryan Newman threw a block on Ryan Blaney, made contact with Blaney and survived the horrific wreck.
Drivers are resigned to the fact that there will be wrecks.
"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," said Keselowski, who is seeking his first Daytona 500 win.
"But I know eventually it will, and when that moment happens, we need to capitalize."
Will Sunday be the final race for Derrike Cope and Jamie McMurray?
A month or two ago, most fans probably thought Derrike Cope and Jamie McMurray would not race another Cup race. But both are running Sunday, and it might be the last race for both of them.
McMurray, a FOX Sports analyst and the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, will start 19th in his first Cup race in two years.
McMurray, at age 44, is 18 years younger than the 62-year-old Cope.
Cope, the general manager of the StarCom Racing team, hasn’t raced a Cup car at Daytona since 2004, nor any Cup races since 2018. The 1990 Daytona 500 winner starts 32nd.
Will there be festivities before the race?
There will still be some pageantry for the Daytona 500 amid the pandemic. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds will do their traditional flyover.
Country artist Luke Combs will perform a five-song, 18-minute set before the race.
Will there be Dale Earnhardt tributes?
The track will ask fans to hold up three fingers on Lap 3 in memory of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
As the cars enter Turn 1 on Lap 2, a tribute to Earnhardt will be shown on the video boards at the track. On Lap 3, the scoring pylon will show the No. 3 in every position from top to bottom.
What's the story behind the Harley J. Early Trophy?
The Harley J. Earl Trophy is named after a General Motors car designer and a friend of NASCAR founder Bill France. If you see the driver struggle with it in victory lane, there is good reason: The trophy is 54 pounds.