Monday, February 17, 2014

Back to the Future: Daytona Speedweeks

Austin Dillon took a wild ride subbing for Tony Stewart at Talladega last October
The last time I shot pictures of Austin Dillon in a race, he was airborne in Tony Stewart's #14 car at Talladega this past October. Now he's back at Daytona in the legendary #3 car for Grandpa Richard Childress and will start on the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500. Skeptics have wondered if there was any favorable treatment from tech inspectors since this is the first time the #3 has been on the track in Cup racing since the late Dale Earnhardt crashed and perished on the last lap of the 2011 Daytona 500. I am not one of those skeptics, but it's a fun argument to have in social media and I will be listening in to see how it all plays out. I am really looking forward to getting back to Daytona this weekend. I leave Indy in 3 days...

Tony Stewart at Indy 2013
Tony Stewart will also be back, although his car and the team car of Danica Patrick will have to start at the back Thursday in their qualifying races and Sunday in the 500 after blowing engines last weekend before qualifying. Tony has been awesome historically in everything at Speedweeks except for the 500 itself so it will be very interesting to see how he manages a run from the back this Sunday in his first major test since breaking a leg last August in a sprint car accident. And no repeat of last year's pole winning form for Danica this year. She will also have to contend with lots of traffic to get to the front. Maybe she can make Richard Petty eat some crow after his recent comments that she couldn't win in NASCAR unless everyone else was off the track. Tony has the better chance to win so I think the King is safe this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson
The true list of favorites begins and ends with 6-time NASCAR Jimmie Johnson, although he crashed out of the Sprint Unlimited early in last Saturday's all star event. Stewart and another favorite Carl Edwards got collected in "the big one" Saturday night which was started by an ill-timed blocking maneuver by still another 500 favorite Matt Kenseth. Of course fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has to be on the favorite's list as well since he always seems to run well in the restrictor plate races. I would also consider Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne among the contenders but they will all be chasing Dillon and Martin Truex who have the only two "locked in" positions for the 500. Dillon and Truex will each lead the field in a qualifying race Thursday so it will be interesting to see if their qualifying form can hold up in those 150 mile races.

Little E
Speaking of qualifying races, this will be my first chance to shoot them as I finally have been able to get my travel schedule worked out to get to Daytona in time. The change to night races certainly helps. This should be my fourth Daytona 500 but it will actually only be the second one since 2011 that I have the chance to work. I drove down in 2011 and everything went off like clockwork. I drove solo again in 2012 and the race was postponed by rain for the first time ever and I had to drive back to Indy without actually shooting the race. Then last year I decided I had had enough of the 16 hour drives so I decided to fly down, but I never made it as my flight was cancelled the day before I was to leave for an ice storm in Indy. I am flying down this year so hopefully the weather gods will shine on me for the whole weekend this time. Five races to shoot from the Thursday night duals through the 500 on Sunday means five chances to "make some f-ing pictures" for Associated Press, so wish me luck. I have to admit that it is a bit surreal to be going back to Daytona barely four weeks since I was there for the Rolex 24 Hours, but it's a great opportunity and I don't know if it will happen again so I have to go.

Back on the road again to "Indiana-ville" in just 3 days folks! Photos to follow soon (but not soon enough)!

Daytona 500 favorite Jimmie Johnson pits at the Brickyard in 2013
Could 2014 be Matt Kenseth & Toyota's year?
Kasey Kahne & Kevin Harvick share a lighter moment in 2013 before hitting the racetrack at Indy
Jimmie Johnson knows how to win and is the man to beat (again) in 2014

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