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Plenty to watch, lots to learn in this Daytona 500

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Chase Elliott captures first Duel race (1:12)

Daytona 500 pole sitter Chase Elliott leads the final 24 laps to win the first Can-Am Duel. (1:12)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Chase Elliott can remember something special about Daytona International Speedway.

It has nothing to do with his father racing cars at NASCAR's most famous track.

"The biggest thing I remember about Daytona is they had the coolest playground of all the racetracks we went to," Elliott said.

Elliott has created other memories since then -- good and bad. He won the pole for the 2016 Daytona 500 as a rookie as he replaced Jeff Gordon as driver of the No. 24. He then wrecked 19 laps into the race.

He doesn't enter the 2017 Daytona 500 with all bad memories, though. He won the pole for the 200-lap race Sunday. And backed that up with a win in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday.

Elliott did all that with the motivation from the 2016 Daytona 500.

"We didn't even make it to the first pit stop last year, so all that stuff can just be all for naught if you don't do your job correctly and don't make sure that you're where you need to be mentally and with the car setup and the whole deal when it comes to race time, which is the day that counts," Elliott said.

The 21-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver appears more prepared for his second time in this race. He won his qualifying race Thursday in a jerky fashion that didn't look veteran smooth but was still just as effective.

The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott has put himself in position as a serious threat to win the season opener. He has never won a race. Oh, what a story it would be.

Only seven drivers have ever recorded their first career victory with a Daytona 500 win. Elliott has a shot to be the eighth, joining Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope, Sterling Marlin, Michael Waltrip and Trevor Bayne.

This isn't as simple as "Hey, the guy on the front should be a favorite." Elliott proved that with the way he raced in his duel Thursday night.

"He's got a lot of pressure on him," said his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I couldn't imagine. When I went into Cup racing, I had my father as my boss, I had a security blanket. I never worried about a job.

"I was going to get plenty of rope to learn and get better. He's driving for Hendrick. I couldn't imagine going into Rick's car as a rookie even though he's got his dad supporting and got that to lean on."

Elliott isn't the only one to watch when the green drops at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Also keep your eyes on:

Manufacturer plans

The Toyota drivers seem to work well together. At least they did last year up until the last lap when Denny Hamlin broke out of line and ended up winning the race.

Expect to see it for at least 199 laps Sunday.

"My interpretation [last year] of the plan was that whoever was in front at the time, we make sure we push them and they win," said Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. "But this year it's sort of morphed into 'Hey, you have to make sure you do what's right for your team in any particular moment to make sure you can score the victory for yourself.' "

Hamlin, maybe sensing that he might not have many Toyota friends after the move he pulled last year, dismissed ideas of a stronger Toyota bond this year.

"I don't think that works -- you've got to do something different," Hamlin said.

The other key in the manufacturer drama of who helps whom is that Ford added the four Stewart-Haas cars. That has made an already strong Penske effort potentially stronger.

All Earnhardt knows it will be every man for himself. At the end of the second duel Thursday, Austin Dillon didn't go with Earnhardt. He went with Hamlin because he thought that would work the best. Dillon's move didn't work out well for him or Earnhardt as Hamlin blew by Earnhardt with the push from Dillon and won the race.

Of course, Hamlin joked there was another reason:

"I guess allowing [Dillon] to play in my basketball league paid off, you know?" Hamlin quipped after winning the race. "Eventually you just get teammates in different kinds of ways."

In other words, loyalties will only go so far Sunday afternoon.

"If it was the Daytona 500, same thing," Earnhardt said. "There ain't much you can do about that. It's not really defendable. ... I hope to have that same opportunity on Sunday. I thought leading these races might be the place to be. We might have to rethink that after watching how [Thursday] played out."

Forget the duels

While there was a lot to be learned in the duels -- as Earnhardt indicated -- plenty of unknowns remain.

The duels were run at night and that means the track didn't have as much grip -- although maybe it won't be as slick as anticipated since temperatures aren't expected to hit 70. Earnhardt expects his car not to handle as well Sunday as it did Thursday night without at least some adjustments.

"We didn't learn a lot about the balance of the car," Earnhardt said after leading 53 laps in his duel.

Drivers seemed split on whether they completely showed their hands Thursday night.

"We still have a few more [moves] left and we'll work on them," said Brad Keselowski, considered one of the favorites.

Keselowski has won two of the last three restrictor-plate races, including the July race at Daytona.

Oh, the new rules

The race will be the first for the NASCAR Cup Series with the new format in which drivers get points on how they finish in two stages over the first 48 to 63 percent of the race in addition to points at the end. The first stage will end at lap 60, the next at lap 120, and then the final 80 laps will complete the 200-lap race.

NASCAR also has new rules that won't allow teams to add body panels or other pieces damaged in a crash.

It will be up to the crew chiefs to remember all the new rules and see how everything plays out.

The one thing that's not different: This is the Daytona 500. It's the biggest race of the year and many will worry about stages and strategy starting next week.

The strategy is pretty similar as in the past. Running in the draft doesn't change all that much. As Earnhardt said, leading might not be the best place at the end.

"It's plate racing," said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. "I've had more success trying to run second than I've had trying to go win the race. The mindset [is] of running second and situations develop and you end up at the front at the right point in time.

"Being the aggressor and trying to lead every lap, I usually end up leading five laps too early and end up midpack."

First and last ... and maybe history

The race will rank as the first Cup event for Mexican-born driver Daniel Suarez. It will be the last for veteran Michael Waltrip.

Waltrip's first Daytona 500 was in 1987. There are 17 drivers in the field who were not born at that time.

In all honesty, expectations for both those drivers are limited. Suarez doesn't have the experience to be able to rebound from mistakes. Waltrip doesn't have the fastest pit crew nor the fastest car.

Waltrip has won the Daytona 500 twice for two of his four career wins in 783 starts. He will start 30th after being 35th in single-car qualifying Wednesday.

"I qualified 35th, so unless our strategy is 'We've got them right where we want them, they don't even know we're here,' then we might be in a little bit of trouble on this one, but I'm looking forward to trying," Waltrip said.

So there will be some history made as Waltrip makes his last start.

There could be more: Chase Elliott putting the No. 24 back in Victory Lane to the delight of his fans and probably many of those who cheered for Gordon or Elliott's father.

"The pressure to drive that [No.] 24 car has to be immense," Earnhardt said about Elliott. "He'll get calmed down and do better, and he's already pretty damn badass."