Cup racing is back with the Daytona 500

Former winners, past champions and six North Carolinians will compete Sunday in NASCAR’s biggest event

The No. 24 car of Charlotte NASCAR Cup Series driver William Bryon sits on pit road during qualifying for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. (Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports)

No one knows how to wave the green flag on a sports season quite like the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which holds its marquee event — the Daytona 500 — as the first stop on its 36-race schedule.

Martin Truex Jr. dominated the 2017 regular season and then came out on top during the playoffs for his first Cup title. He will look to carry that momentum into Daytona, where he has one regular season win — back in 2005 when in the then-Busch (now Xfinity) Series.

NASCAR’s biggest day, however, has seen a different driver in Victory Lane frequently in recent years. Here’s a tale of the tape for Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m., Fox).

On the front row

All that’s guaranteed so far is Alex Bowman and Joey Logano will be up front come Sunday’s start. Thursday’s two 150-mile Can-Am Duels (broadcast on FS1, starting with the first qualifying race at 7 p.m., followed by the second around 8:30 p.m.) will determine the starting order of the rest of the field — and perhaps tip off the drivers, crews and fans as to which teams are the ones to beat over the weekend.

N.C. born and bred

Six drivers from North Carolina will compete in the Can-Am Duels for a spot in the 500: High Point’s Ryan Blaney, Charlotte’s William Byron, Lewisville’s Austin and Ty Dillon, Mooresville’s Jeffrey Earnhardt and Concord’s Corey LaJoie.

If those last names — with the exception of Byron — sound familiar, they should: All are legacy drivers.

Blaney is the son of former Ohio-born Cup driver Dave Blaney, who has literally been one-upped by Ryan (a winner last year at Pocono) since he never won in 473 Cup races.

The Dillon brothers are the children of Mike Dillon (he had one Cup race, a 35th-place finish at Fontana in 1998) and grandchildren of legendary car owner Richard Childress. Mike Dillon is general manager at RCR.

Earnhardt is the son of Kerry Earnhardt (a veteran of seven Cup races from 2000-05), and grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and nephew of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

LaJoie is the son of Randy LaJoie, a Connecticut-born racer who made one Daytona 500 start (for Bill Davis Racing in 1995, finishing 29th) but had most of his success in the Busch Series, winning back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997.

Victory lane’s frequent visitors

The retirement of Earnhardt Jr. (four wins) and Matt Kenseth (two) thins the herd of drivers who have had continued success at Daytona’s two annual Cup events. Only three active drivers have won multiple points races at the track: Jimmie Johnson (three), Kevin Harvick (two) and Jamie McMurray (two). A different driver has won in the last eight Daytona 500s, and all of them except Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth will be in the field. That includes 2017 winner Kurt Busch.

No. 1 with a bullet

While quite a few drivers have won from the pole at Daytona’s July event (five in the last 14 years, to be exact), Dale Jarrett was the last to do so at the 500 when he won in 2000. Bowman, who takes over the No. 24 Hendrick Ford this season with Chase Elliott moving to the team’s reborn No. 9 car, is still looking for his first Cup top five, but don’t rule him out — who can forget Trevor Bayne’s win in 2011, when the 20-years-and-one-day-old took the checkered flag in his second Cup race.

We are the champions

Six former Cup winners will be in the field, led by Truex — the defending champ — and Johnson, who is looking for a record-breaking eighth title. The others are Kyle Busch, Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch, all one-time winners.