DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Speedweeks at the Daytona International Speedway is sponsored by Budweiser, but it’s belonged to Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Toyota drivers have won all three events on the 2.5-mile oval with Denny Hamlin winning the Sprint Unlimited event a week ago and the second Budweiser Duel on Thursday night, while Matt Kenseth claimed the first duel on Thursday.
All of that success adds up to Joe Gibbs Racing being a favorite to win today’s Daytona 500, but the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins is quick to point out that doesn’t mean anything when the green flag flies at noon today.
“For me, I’m always concerned in pro sports that anything can happen,’’ Gibbs said. “I don’t think I ever go into something where I feel like, Hey, we got this thing. That’s just not the way I personally ever look at it. So many things got to go your way.
“I think drivers and crew chiefs — they’re more optimistic than I am. I don’t know, I’m always nervous about it.’’
And there is good reason for Gibbs to be cautious.
His team has claimed just one Daytona 500 victory in 22 years as Dale Jarrett won the 1993 event, the second-year of existence for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team has won 117 races with drivers like Jarrett, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Hamlin, Kenseth and Kyle Busch driving for him.
“We’ve come here with great cars over the years,’’ Gibbs said. “It shows you what a tough race this is, the 500. Like I said, we won once. Probably one of the greatest sporting experiences I’ve ever had. I was thrilled.’’
They also had a unique celebration that night.
“That night we got lost, we didn’t know what to do ... we wound up at the Steak ‘n’ Shake,” Gibbs said. “There were about 15 people in there hammered, and we showed up with the trophy out in the parking lot taking pictures with our family.”
Hamlin heard this story on Thursday night and he hopes the team gets a chance to repeat it later tonight.
“That sounds like my kind of night,’’ Hamlin said. “Seriously, let’s do this.’’
Gibbs said the team would have a party if they are capable of winning the Great American Race.
Now, if Hamlin is able to put his Toyota into the Victory Lane for the third time this week, he would be the first driver in Speedweeks history to win the Sprint Unlimited event, a qualifying race on Thursday and the Daytona 500. There have been 13 drivers that have won both preliminary events but failed to win the main event.
“For my part, I think the biggest challenge we’ll have for myself is keeping the reins back only for 400 miles, 450 miles. It’s going to be a much longer race,’’ Hamlin said. “Obviously, when you go out here and you perform the way we have over these last few races, it’s hard not to just want to go out there, charge out there, show that you’re still on top and still the best right on lap one. I think that will be my challenge within myself, is keeping the reins back and realizing how long this race is, trying to be as patient as I can.
“It’s going to be battling those inner demons of wanting to go out there, lead laps, putting yourself in a safe position, but also being conservative and making sure you’re there at the end of the day.’’
If the season-opening races in the Camping World Truck Series on Friday and the NASCAR Nationwide Series on Saturday are any indication of what today holds for the Sprint Cup Series — the winner will be decided on the last lap. The margins of victory in both of those races have been .016 seconds and .013 seconds respectively.
But, in the two Budweiser Duel races on Thursday night and the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, the driver leading heading into the final lap has won those races.
“I think you always want to be in the front. I would always rather be in the front and defend my lead than be somewhere and be at the mercy of how good of a run you get or whatever,’’ said Kenseth. “I think there’s a lot more opportunity for a last-lap pass than there was with last year’s rule package.
“I feel like there’s a lot more opportunity for two‑lane racing at least and for some last‑lap passes. You saw that in the Sprint Unlimited, there were only six or seven cars out there at the end. They could still make passes. Last year I don’t think that would have happened.’’
The new rules package this year for the Sprint Cup Series has added an extra half-inch to the real spoilers.
“It seems like the momentum is maybe happening at different spots of the racetrack,’’ Kenseth said. “You certainly got to pay more attention, 100 percent all of the time. It seems like if you delay that decision, start thinking about it a little bit, by the time you make it, somebody is already there.’’
Hamlin and Kenseth will start today’s race from the second row.
Sprint Cup rookie Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, will start from the pole, while Martin Truex Jr. is on the outside pole.
Dillon is one of six rookies in today’s field, joining Kyle Larson (16th), Cole Whitt (23rd), Alex Bowman (29th), Michael Annett (36th) and Parker Kligerman (41st).
Casey Mears, associated with Danville agent Doug Barnette, driving the No. 13 Geico Chevrolet will starting 28th in today’s race. Mears had the 21st fastest lap in final practice on Saturday.
Also of regional interest, Riverton’s Justin Algaier will start from 40th in today’s race.
The start of today’s race is set for noon and it can be seen on Fox. The weather forecast is calling for a 40 percent chance of rain in Daytona.