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Leonard: 5 things to watch during 2015 NASCAR season
0217NASCAR
Ty Dillon, left, congratulates Jeff Gordon this past Sunday after Gordon earned the pole for this coming Sunday’s Daytona 500. Dillon is the type of driver who could pull a surprise at Daytona. - photo by John Raoux

Another NASCAR regular season is almost upon us. For the third time in four years, somebody other than Jimmie Johnson is the defending champion.

Following the successful debut of its postseason featuring eliminations, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will drop the green flag on the 2015 season in Sunday’s Daytona 500. But part of what makes the Daytona Speedweeks so special is we don’t have to wait until this weekend to begin seeing where drivers stand.

Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Unlimited, a preseason All-Star race, at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday. Then Jeff Gordon earned the pole for the Daytona 500 this past Sunday ahead of his final full season, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson qualifying second.

The rest of the field will be set in Thursday’s Budweiser Duel races, which start at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and air on Fox Sports 1. Previously a pair of daytime events, the Duel doubleheader is now a primetime battle for starting spots in the sport’s Super Bowl.

With the Daytona 500 just five days away, here are a few important stories to watch during the 2015 season.

ANYONE CAN WIN AT DAYTONA: Variety is the name of the game at Daytona, where nine drivers have won the past 10 points races at the restrictor-plate track.

Among that number are Trevor Bayne (2011 Daytona 500), David Ragan (2011 Coke Zero 400) and Aric Almirola (2014 Coke Zero 400), a trio that has combined for one victory outside of those Daytona triumphs.

The large packs created by the restrictor plates keep plenty of drivers in contention and open the potential for surprise winners. In that department, don’t count out Austin and Ty Dillon, the prodigy grandsons of Richard Childress, or even Danica Patrick.

Patrick has a pair of eighth-place finishes and a 14th in five career Daytona starts, and she earned the 2013 Daytona 500 pole.

JIMMIE’S DRIVE FOR SEVEN: Much is often made of Gordon’s “Drive for Five,” a reference to his desire to capture a fifth championship, and certainly will be again in his final season.

But Johnson will once again be chasing history as he goes for his seventh Sprint Cup championship, a mark that would tie record-holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The Hendrick Motorsports star won every title from 2006-2010, then another in 2013. But he’s coming off his worst points finish (11th) in 13 full NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons. His previous worst was sixth.

Even so, Johnson scored four victories in 2014.

PENSKE’S ENCORE: No group had a better 1-2 punch than Team Penske in 2014. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, and Joey Logano combined to win 11 races and pick up 33 top-five finishes. They thrived on the pressure-packed new postseason system that put a premium on victories.

Can they follow it up by both being serious contenders again?

Logano wound up 15 points behind first-time champion Kevin Harvick but ended up as one of the major success stories of the season. The 24-year-old had three wins and 27 top-five finishes in five previous full seasons before racking up five victories and 16 top-fives in 2014 alone.

Keselowski bounced back from a dismal 2013 to earn a series-high six wins and 17 top-fives in 2014. Even though he wasn’t one of the final four contending drivers and had plenty of on-track and off-track incidents with rivals, Keselowski reintroduced himself as a major player in the sport.

EDWARDS TO GIBBS: Carl Edwards has a new beginning with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’ll hope to follow the blueprint of fellow former Roush Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth’s 2013 season.

Kenseth won a series-best and career-high seven races and finished second in the Sprint Cup standings, 19 points behind Johnson, in his first year with JGR.

Edwards, who spent his first 10 full seasons with Roush, has the kind of talent to contend right away with Gibbs’ top-level equipment.

CHASE’S FIRST WIN: Dawsonville native Chase Elliott, the 2014 Nationwide Series champion, is already slotted to begin full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup racing in 2016 when he takes over for Gordon in the No. 24. The 19-year-old will get his first taste of Sprint Cup competition with five races in 2015.

It might seem a little much to expect a victory at Martinsville (March 29), Richmond (April 25), Charlotte (May 24), Indianapolis (July 26) or Darlington (Sept. 6) with Elliott in the No. 25 car. But with his talent and Hendrick’s elite equipment, don’t count out Elliott’s chances of finding Victory Lane before he’s even a full-time Sprint Cup driver. Even if he doesn’t pick up his first Sprint Cup win in 2015, it seems more a matter of when than if for the son of recent Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott.

Let Clark Leonard know what you think about the upcoming NASCAR season at cleonard@gainesvilletime.com, 770-718-3418 or twitter.com/SportTimesClark.

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