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Favored Denny Hamlin hopes to make history at Daytona 500

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Denny Hamlin is the heavy favorite to win the 2021 Daytona 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. File Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/bf9ebdb98d29bf99e923b4f34a111704/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Denny Hamlin is the heavy favorite to win the 2021 Daytona 500 on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. File Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Denny Hamlin will attempt Sunday to do something that not even Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt or Cale Yarborough accomplished during their decorated NASCAR careers: win the Daytona 500 three consecutive times.

The 2021 Daytona 500 airs at 2:30 p.m. EST Fox. Forty competitors will drive at speeds close to 200 mph for 200 laps around the tri-oval track at Daytona International Speedway in the 500-mile event.

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Hamlin won the race in 2019 and 2020 and is favored to complete a three-peat this weekend in Daytona Beach, Fla.

He has won NASCAR's "Great American Race" in three of the last five years. He also finished third in 2018.

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"This is a big opportunity for us," Hamlin told reporters last week on a Zoom video conference. "I would have never imagined we'd be in this position, especially five years ago when we didn't have any [Daytona wins]. I always think about all the wins that slipped away.

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"It would be by far the biggest victory of my career and one I wouldn't exchange for anything."

Sterling Marlin was the last NASCAR drive to win consecutive Daytona 500s. He finished 40th in 1996 after wins in 1994 and 1995. Yarborough won in 1983 and 1984, but finished 36th in 1986.

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Petty -- a seven-time champion -- finished seventh after wins in 1973 and 1974.

Hamlin went on finish fourth in the 2020 Cup Series standings after his win at Daytona. His seven wins last year trailed only Kevin Harvick's nine victories.

Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has the second-best odds of winning the 2021 Daytona 500, followed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski.

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"I'm just looking forward to getting the season started," Elliott told reporters Monday on a Zoom video conference. "It's the beginning of a very long road. I'm always excited when I get to Daytona.

"It's a great week for our sport."

Alex Bowman won the pole in Wednesday's time trials. His No. 48 Chevrolet will start alongside teammate William Byron's No. 24 Chevrolet in the first row Sunday.

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Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace also will start in the Top 6. Logano will start ninth, Elliott will start 12th and Hamlin will start 25th.

The 2020 Daytona 500 prize purse totaled $23.6 million, including Hamlin's $2 million prize for first place. NASCAR has not disclosed the 2021 prize purse, which could be less hefty due to COVID-19's financial impact on the sport.

COVID-19 impact

COVID-19 had no impact on last year's Daytona 500, as the event ran a month before the pandemic shut down major sports leagues in the United States. The Cup Series completed three more races after Daytona. NASCAR then shut down for two months due to the pandemic.

NASCAR returned in May and allowed some fans to return for a race in June in Homestead, Fla.

The Daytona 500 attendance ranged from 100,000 to 150,000 fans in the recent years before COVID-19. This year's event, like most sporting events, will see a limited attendance due to the pandemic.

About 30,000 fans are expected to attend the 2021 Daytona 500. An estimated 10,000 and 25,000 fans attended the last two events hosted at the track.

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Fans who attend Sunday's event will be required to wear masks, undergo a health screening and temperature check and maintain social distance. The facility also will provide cashless transaction options for its limited concessions.

NASCAR will continue to have limited attendance at future races until further notice. Cup Series drivers will compete on the same site next weekend in the Cup Series Race at Daytona Road Course event. That event airs Feb. 21 on Fox.

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