(ESPN)

(ESPN)

NASCAR’s Back.

The 57th annual Daytona 500 is this coming Sunday, and for three drivers this race is more important than ever.

 

Will Jeff Gordon win his fourth 500 in his final start?

Jeff Gordon after winning Daytona 500 pole award. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Jeff Gordon after winning the Daytona 500 pole award on Sunday. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As I’m sure everyone knows by now, 2015 will be Jeff Gordon’s final full season in NASCAR. He’ll probably run the occasional race in his spare time, but he’s on the record saying this will be his final Daytona 500.

He’s been trying to get his fourth 500 win for nearly a decade now. If he were to get it, he would tie Cale Yarborough for the 2nd most all time. Richard Petty holds the record for seven Daytona 500 wins, which will most likely never be broken.

Vegas has Jeff Gordon as a 12-to-1 shot to win. Gordon’s had a good start to Speedweeks, surviving the demolition derby that was the Sprint Unlimited to finish seventh.

More importantly he will start first after winning the pole on Sunday. His teammate Jimmie Johnson qualified 2nd. The rest of the field will be set on Thursday in the two Duel races.

While starting P1 is undoubtedly the best position to be in, only nine of the 56 previous Daytona 500s have been won from the pole. Gordon has accomplished that in 1999.

Answer: No

Although, as a lifelong #24 fan, I’d be thrilled if he won; I don’t see it happening. Winning a restrictor plate race takes an enormous amount of luck. With it being his final 500, Gordon will also be ultra-aggressive, which might ultimately end up getting him into some trouble on the track.

On the other hand, sports is known for producing magical moments.

 

Will Tony Stewart be able to overcome unprecedented adversity to finally win the 500?

Tony Stewart speaking publicly for the first time following the death of Kevin Ward Jr. (John Bazemore/AP Photo)

Tony Stewart speaking publicly for the first time following the death of Kevin Ward Jr. (John Bazemore/AP Photo)

Tony Stewart is beginning to creep towards Dale Earnhardt status when it comes to the Daytona 500. It took Earnhardt 20 years to win it. Sunday will be Stewart’s 17th attempt. He’s won at Daytona in July three times but has only been able to finish second once in February.

Like Earnhardt, Stewart has accomplished everything else there is to accomplish in the sport. He’s a three-time champion, he’s won twice at the Brickyard and he’s won the All-Star race.

But the 500 eludes him.

No hardware in NASCAR is more coveted than the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Every driver dreams of hoisting it above their head in victory lane at Daytona. But for Stewart, winning the 57th Daytona 500 would be even more special. He’s coming off arguably the most difficult two-year stretch of any sports figure ever. He suffered a devastating leg injury during a sprint car crash in 2013. Last summer he was involved in another sprint car incident that tragically took the life of 20-year-old Kevin Ward Jr.

The incidents noticeably and understandably took an emotional toll on Stewart. He could use something positive to happen in his life.

Answer: No

Stewart doesn’t seem be the same driver he used to be, both on and off the track. He seems much more reserved, but who could blame him? Even though it was an accident, taking someone’s life is a pain that he knows will never go away. His life will never be the same, and I think that is something that will be impossible to overcome mentally.

To be a successful driver requires a high level of focus, especially to win the sport’s biggest race. Unfortunately, the things that Stewart is dealing with personally won’t allow him to reach that elite level of focus again.

 

Will Dale Jr. defend his title as champion of the Great American Race?

Dale Jr. celebrates 2014 Daytona 500 victory (Credit: @MissSprintCup)

Dale Jr. celebrates 2014 Daytona 500 victory (Credit: @MissSprintCup)

The favorite heading into Sunday’s race in most analysts’ eyes is the 2014 winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Vegas also has him favored with 9-to-1 odds.

For the people profiting off of NASCAR, nothing could be better than Redneck Jesus winning his second-straight Daytona 500 (besides Danica Patrick winning). He’s by far the most popular driver and winning it last year brought a huge amount of attention to the sport. NASCAR rode that wave of media attention all the way to the final race in Homestead.

He’ll have a new crew chief this year in Greg Ives. Steve Letarte will make the move to broadcasting, calling races for NBC.

Answer: Yes

Junior, like his dad, is a master when it comes to restrictor plate racing. He has that same natural ability to work the draft and put himself in position to win more often than not.

Along with his two Daytona 500 victories (he also won in 2004), Junior has six other restrictor plate wins: the emotional 2001 Pepsi 400 win at Daytona and five Talladega wins. He’s also finished second or better in four out of the five previous Daytona 500s.

While I think the loss of Letarte, and the chemistry they had, will negatively affect Junior’s season as whole; I don’t think it will hurt his chances at winning the 500. His car has already proved to be one of the strongest on track during speedweeks. Given a good car, Junior will figure out the rest.

He will become the fourth driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s and the first since Sterling Marlin in 1994-1995.

 

 

 

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