DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Never before has one race displayed NASCAR’s rapidly changing look more than this year’s Daytona 500.
Three drivers under age 25 will start in the first two rows, new rules will make the cars difficult to drive and NASCAR’s longtime most popular driver will watch from the sidelines.
NASCAR begins its season Sunday with the 60th running of ‘‘The Great American Race’’ and Alex Bowman on the pole.
Who? Well, the guy who got Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s coveted seat at Hendrick Motorsports when concussions forced the superstar to retire. Bowman is 24 and had washed out of NASCAR once before when he got the call to help during Earnhardt’s absence. Team owner Rick Hendrick gave him a car capable of earning the top starting spot for the biggest race of the year, and after nearly a full year out of a race car, Bowman will lead the field to green.
‘‘I haven’t speedway raced in a year, so it’s going to be tough,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘I have to get my feet back under me as far as speedway racing goes.’’
Bowman has given no indication how his car will handle because, in an effort to keep it safe for the Daytona 500, he dropped to the back of the field during his qualifying race and avoided drafting. Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott took the opposite approach, won his qualifying race and earned a starting spot in the second row.
Elliott is 22 and one of NASCAR’s budding stars. His peers believe he’ll replace Earnhardt in fan voting for NASCAR’s most popular driver, and Hendrick gave him a boost this year by switching Elliott’s car number to No. 9 so the driver can honor his Hall of Fame father, Bill.
‘‘If you look at the starting grid from the Daytona 500 five years ago and you look at it today, it’s just amazing how much the image of NASCAR has changed,’’ said 2016 race winner Denny Hamlin, who will start second. ‘‘I’d say four or five years ago, there was so many older veteran drivers that it was just very calm for a long period of the race, and I think that this year with the big youth movement, it has a potential to be more on edge for a longer period of time.’’