DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The numbers that stand out on the ARCA starting grid aren't the ones on the side of the stock cars.
It's the ages.
James Hylton is pushing 80 and might be a better fit than Jeff Gordon for AARP sponsorship as he starts his retirement tour. Only 20, Kyle Larson is one of 20 first-time drivers at Daytona International Speedway, a debut that might be forgotten if he blossoms into a Sprint Cup star.
"I'm sure James has older underwear than Kyle Larson, there's no doubt about it," veteran ARCA driver Frank Kimmel said Friday. "If he still wears underwear. He don't know where he put `em."
ARCA celebrates 50 years at Daytona when the 200-mile race starts Saturday. The stock car series, which has no affiliation with NASCAR, will honor previous Daytona winners including Kyle Petty, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and eight-time winner Bobby Gerhart. Gerhart starts third in the 40-car field as he attempts to win for the ninth time on the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway.
Hylton and Gerhart have long been staples in the series, which usually serves as a support race to the NASCAR weekend show. This race, though, is more of a showcase for NASCAR's future stars than a salute at ARCA's past. ARCA was invited to Daytona in 1964 at the suggestion of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
Darrell Wallace Jr. is part of the whopping Daytona rookie class. He will run a full season in the Truck Series in the No. 54 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports and is set to become the fourth black driver to run a full-time schedule in the NASCAR series. Wallace insisted he wasn't scared to try and tame the track that's been the site of some of ARCA's wildest pileups.
"I think we'll definitely put on a show for everybody," Wallace said. "I've just got to hold it to the floor and hold it straight."
Larson, who knows only a couple of other drivers in the field, has a huge week ahead. First, Larson has to get approved to move on to the Nationwide Series race. Larson has been approved by NASCAR to compete in the second-tier series except for Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.
Larson's approval is a forgone conclusion after successful practice sessions and qualifying laps. As long as Larson performs routine skills such as safe driving around other drivers and drafting, he'll be in Nationwide later in Speedweeks.
"Hopefully, nothing goes wrong and I can stay out of the mess," Larson said. "Hopefully, I don't cause any mess either."
Kimmel addressed the rookie class in a meeting Thursday. Gerhart also offered some veteran's advice.
"If the rookies can put the magnitude of the event aside and understand what they're doing here, it's actually OK," said Gerhart, wearing the ring he made for the crew when his team won for the fourth time at Daytona. "The old track on the other hand was a little different. It had a tremendous amount of character. I miss it, to be honest."
John Wes Townley took the pole and Milka Duno starts second.
Duno was a regular in the IndyCar series and raced in the same Indianapolis 500 as Danica Patrick. Patrick made a splash this month when she took her love life public and is set to run a full-time Sprint Cup season. Duno had no desire to compare her career path with Patrick.
"Oh, no, I have 10 years in racing and I have more wins than her," she said.
Hylton, a 78-year-old driver from Inman, S.C., announced Thursday that this will be his final season behind the wheel.
"I'm 78 and the time has come," said Hylton, who made his first start at Daytona International Speedway in 1966.
"James was here when Ben Hur raced," Kimmel said, laughing. "It was before the ocean came about. The earth was still together. All the land was still one piece."
Kimmel said he heard Gerhart say he might not have the car to win. In a garage where the personalities are looser than in Cup, Gerhart may have just been trying to lull his fellow drivers into a false sense of security.
Asked who was the driver to beat, Gerhart was blunt:
"You're looking at him," Gerhart said, as he walked off.