|Brad Keselowski climbs in his car during NASCAR auto racing practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla.|
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The good news for NASCAR is that all signs indicate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a legitimate shot to win the Daytona 500.
A victory for NASCAR's most popular driver, in his return to racing after a concussion sidelined him the second half of last season, would be a massive boost for the sagging series. Earnhardt's star power has been one of the bright spots of Speedweeks and his strength on the track has been obvious every time he's behind the wheel of his Chevrolet.
Earnhardt was part of a Hendrick Motorsports qualifying sweep for Sunday's season-opening race. Chase Elliott won the pole, and Earnhardt will line up next to him on the starting grid. Elliott added a win in a qualifying race, and Earnhardt led 53 of 60 laps in a second qualifying race before he was passed at the end .
So the Hendrick cars have speed, the drivers aren't cowering from the Toyota teamwork that dominated last year's race, and they are ready to go bumper-to-bumper with the Team Penske fleet.
It means Sunday could be a strong opening day for NASCAR, particularly if Earnhardt can pull off his third victory in "The Great American Race." He's not ready to call himself a favorite, and thinks he'll have his hands full with the Joe Gibbs Racing group and Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.
"Watching the last several plate races, I think the Gibbs guys have the market cornered on the favorite," he said. "The Penske guys are really strong. So I think it's their race to lose. The Hendrick cars are going to be up there trying to mix it up."
NASCAR needs Sunday to go off without a hitch.
The series is under heavy scrutiny because of sliding attendance and television ratings, plus the title sponsor deal with Monster Energy came in at a fraction of what NASCAR was looking for when it began shopping the naming rights almost two years ago.
NASCAR celebrated its deal with Monster in a Las Vegas announcement, and has hitched its wagon to the hope that Monster can attract a younger demographic and raise the excitement level at all the events. But there was little signage around the track during Speedweeks, and one of the few indications Monster is the new sponsor were the scantily-clad women around for some of the pomp and circumstance. There's been no television advertising and NASCAR was even the subject of a critical examination in the Wall Street Journal.
NASCAR has countered with a JGR announcement that defending race winner Denny Hamlin and FedEx have signed long-term extensions , while Team Penske locked in Logano and Shell-Pennzoil through 2023.
"People are talking about the health of the sport, and this is a watershed moment," Roger Penske said of an extension that took nearly a year to complete with Shell.
Both FedEx and Shell-Pennzoil are major sponsors who spend something close to $20 million a year to brand the race cars and market to the NASCAR audience.
"This is a very positive story in our sport, to see the commitment of a very large company like Shell and Pennzoil are and for them to be able to sign up with this team really makes a statement for not only where Team Penske is, but for where NASCAR is as a sport," Logano said.
Problem is, NASCAR doesn't yet know exactly where it is.
NASCAR will launch a new advertising campaign on Sunday called "Ready. Set. Race." and a crash-filled 30-second TV ad was revealed Saturday to promote the 500 .
In an effort to add excitement to the racing — something both the television partners and Monster wanted — all events will be run in segments this year. It means the Daytona 500 won't exactly be a 500-mile race of attrition, but will instead be cut into three parts. There are points on the line for each segment, giving drivers incentive to race hard for the entire race, and one final long push to the checkered flag.
It's a risky move for NASCAR, but one embraced publicly by drivers. Some fans, particularly longtime watchers, are horrified at the gimmicks NASCAR is using, but a rising crop of young drivers are eager to give it a try.
"I think you have a group of guys coming along that are going to put their signature on this sport," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "The sport's gone through some changes. We're looking at a new format. Some of us older guys, when they talk about changing the format, we look at each other, ask questions. These young drivers, they go, 'OK.' It's kind of no big deal to those guys.
"I think that says a lot about how they approach it, how they look forward to it. So I think it's pretty bright when you have an attitude like that."
Jeff Gordon is now a television analyst and will drive the pace car on Sunday . Tony Stewart retired at the end of last season. Carl Edwards decided in late December he didn't want to race this year after coming 10 laps short of winning the championship. Greg Biffle has committed to a television job.
With all those open seats, the series is starting to shift and there's more attention for drivers like Elliott, Gordon's replacement a year ago, and Daniel Suarez, the Mexican driver who turned his Xfinity Series championship into a promotion to the Cup series when Edwards retired.
JGR development driver Erik Jones is a rookie this year and will team with Martin Truex Jr. at Furniture Row Racing as de facto Gibbs drivers.
Austin Dillon made the playoffs last year, and his younger brother, Ty, has a full-time Cup ride this season. Kyle Larson also made the playoffs, and Ryan Blaney had a productive rookie season driving as a Penske development driver.
The starting grid Sunday will look a lot younger, but the car owners who pay for the talent don't seem to mind.
"I love to watch the young guys. I don't know whether it makes me feel young again, I don't know what it is," said Rick Hendrick. "It's just fun to watch those guys mature, grow, come up through the ranks. I've never seen the level of talent that we have today. I think these guys adapt so much faster. I think it's due to video games, simulators, all that.
"The level of the young guys that you see coming along that have the talent that they have, it's super exciting."