After countless hours of practices, an exhibition race, pole qualifying, qualifying races, and preliminary events, the Daytona 500 is finally just hours away. The 500 is the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” starts the season, unlike big events in other sports.
Recapping the week, Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, Austin Dillon won the 500 pole, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the Budweiser Duels, Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck Series event, and Regan Smith won the Nationwide Series event. Additionally, the UNOH Battle at the Beach (a pair of races for two NASCAR-sanctioned short track series, the K&N Pro Series and the Whelen Modified Series, run on a .375-mile short track constructed on the Daytona backstretch) was won by Daniel Suarez (K&N Pro) and Doug Coby (Whelen Modified).
Now before I get to my list of picks for the Daytona 500, and my official pick to win it, let’s look at some trends. The defending Sprint Cup Series champion hasn’t won the 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000, who was also the last driver to win the 500 from the pole, and the last to win the Sprint Unlimited and the 500 in the same year. The defending champion of the 500 hasn’t won it since Sterling Marlin in 1995, (five days before I was born). Only twice since 1998 has a winner of one of the Gatorade Duels won the 500 (that’s 2-for-30), and when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth did it in 2004 and 2012, those were both unusual 500s (2004 ended with a strung out, 120-lap green flag segment, and 2012 was run on Monday night/early Tuesday morning due to rain, and included a jet dryer explosion). Those trends have eliminated Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, and Matt Kenseth from being my pick for the 500, although all 4 will appear in my power rankings of top contenders. Here are the twelve biggest threats to win the 56th Great American Race:
Worth Mentioning: Kurt Busch (runner-up in 2005, 2008), Kyle Busch (past winner of Sprint Unlimited, Daytona July race), Carl Edwards (2011 runner-up), Austin Dillon (pole sitter), Trevor Bayne (2011 winner), Ryan Newman (2008 winner), Martin Truex Jr. (qualified 2nd, but will start at rear in back-up car), David Gilliland (2007 pole sitter, 2011 3rd place, 2013 Talladega runner-up)
12. David Ragan
Ragan starts 43rd, dead last, although you can win from anywhere at Daytona. In 2011, Ragan, not Trevor Bayne, might have been Cinderella, if it weren’t for an illegal lane change while leading the 500 on a late restart. Later that year, he won the Daytona July race, and he won last spring at Talladega, the other restrictor plate track on the NASCAR circuit. He’s certainly a dark horse, driving for unheralded Front Row Motorsports, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 34 car run well.
11. Michael Waltrip
Yeah, he’s 50, and a win would make him the oldest winner of the 500 in history. But the guy can still drive in a restrictor plate race. All 5 of Waltrip’s career Sprint Cup wins have come on restrictor plate tracks, with 3 at Daytona and 2 in the 500. Yeah, he hasn’t won in 11 years, but finished 4th at Talladega last spring and 5th at Daytona in July.
10. Tony Stewart
Stewart is the modern-day Dale Earnhardt, in that he’s won multiple times in every event at Daytona, except in the 500. He’s won the July race 4 times, along with 3 Budweiser Duels, 3 Sprint Unlimiteds, and a record-tying 7 Daytona Nationwide Series races during Speedweeks. He finished 2nd in 2004 and 3rd in 2008, as well as having some heartbreak with crashes and mechanical failures. Earnhardt eventually won the 500, in 1998, and so will Stewart, and it may be this year.
9. Jeff Gordon
While Gordon hasn’t run as well in recent Daytona 500s, that has mainly been due to bad luck, usually an accident. However, Gordon won 3 Daytona 500s, in 1997, 1999, and 2005, 4 Daytona July races, and finished 2nd in his Duel race on Thursday night behind Denny Hamlin. It’s never wise to not include the #24 Chevrolet in a list of potential Daytona contenders, even at age 42.
8. Jamie McMurray
In 2010, McMurray quietly looked solid throughout Speedweeks, but didn’t win anything until the Sunday, when he won the Daytona 500, one of his 7 career Sprint Cup wins, 3 of which have come at restrictor plate tracks. This week, like 2010, the #1 Chevrolet has quietly had a solid Speedweeks, and was in contention in his Duel on Thursday before being caught up in a last lap crash. He will try to do what Trevor Bayne did in 2011, winning the 500 in a back-up car.
7. Greg Biffle
While Biffle only has one career Daytona win, in the July race back in 2003, he has run well as of late in the 500, finishing 3rd in 2010 and 2012, and 6th last year, and has sat 2nd at the white flag twice, in 2010 and 2013. Biffle ran 3rd in 500 time trials, although he finished 12th in his Duel. With his recent good finishes in the 500, he is certainly a driver to watch in this year’s event.
6. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion has never won at Daytona, although he has won twice at Talladega, NASCAR’s other superspeedway. Keselowski finished 4th in the 2013 Daytona 500, after dueling for the lead with Jimmie Johnson with about 10 laps to go. He also ran very well in his Duel on Thursday, contending for the win until a pit road speeding penalty and a mechanical issue. He is getting better the more he races at Daytona, so look out.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Last year, Jimmie Johnson laid back during all practice sessions during Speedweeks, and even in his Duel, to protect his equipment, and it led to his 2nd Daytona 500 win, adding to his 2006 victory. This year during Speedweeks, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have repeated their strategy from a year ago, in an attempt to repeat the result. However, no one has repeated as 500 winner since 1994-95 (Sterling Marlin), and the defending Sprint Cup champion hasn’t won the 500 since 2000 (Dale Jarrett), so while Johnson certainly could repeat, he’ll have to beat history to do it. He’ll be in a backup car after running out of gas and crashing on the final lap of Thursday’s Duel.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick is almost always near the top of the list of 500 favorites by the end of Speedweeks, as he always runs well at Daytona, winning 3 times in the Sprint Unlimited, a duel in 2013, and the 2007 500. He finished 2nd to Matt Kenseth in Thursday’s Duel, although that finish was disallowed after his car failed post-race inspection, meaning he will start 38th instead of 5th. In addition to his 500 win, he finished 2nd in 2009 and 4th in 2003-04. Expect Harvick to run up front, as he usually does at the Speedway.
3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth won Thursday’s Duel, which was the 2nd Duel win of his career. The only other time he won a Duel, he won the 500, back in 2012, in addition to his 2009 win in the 500. However, Duel winners haven’t done well over the last 15 years in the 500, with Kenseth’s 2012 run being an exception. He led the most laps in last year’s 500, but an engine failure ended his day early. There is a chance of rain in Daytona Beach on Sunday, which is good for Kenseth; both of his 500 wins were in races affected by rain.
2. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin had a tough 2013, suffering a broken back and finishing a career low 23rd in the series standings. His momentum began to change when he won the season finale at Homestead, and that spilled into this year’s Speedweeks, as Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel, his 2nd career win in both events. The win in the duel made Joe Gibbs Racing the first team to ever sweep a set of Duel races. Hamlin will be, according to many, the favorite, but history is not his side. Hamlin is the 16th driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel in the same Speedweeks, and none of the previous 15 won the 500.
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Often times, the winner of the 500 isn’t someone who has won an event or two during Speedweeks, but instead someone who has run well, and showed promise and ability to lead, and just not gotten the finishes to show for it. Junior finished 9th out of the 18-car field in the Sprint Unlimited after being involved in a crash he didn’t cause with about 10 laps to go. He finished 5th in his Duel, and may have run higher had he not gotten boxed in the pack late, and had led laps early in the race. Junior also has plenty of experience, finishing 3rd in 2005, 2nd in 2001, 2010, 2012, and 2013, and winning in 2004, in addition to 3 Duel wins, 2 Sprint Unlimited wins, and 1 July race win. His runner-up in 3 of the last 4 500s was the stat that clinched it for me that he was the man to beat in this year’s 500.
So, what do these picks mean? Absolutely nothing. The 500 has always been, and will always be, a crapshoot, and half the drivers I mentioned may not even be around at the finish due to the seemingly inevitable crash that takes out a large portion of the field, known as “The Big One”. In some years, the wreck has come in the first handful of laps, while in many years, it comes late, but whenever it comes, the hopes of many for a 500 win go out the window.
All we can do is plan for a good race, and hope to see another classic finish, such as the ones we saw in 1976, 1979, 1990, and 2007 (and there are many, many others I could have mentioned here). While Hamlin pulled away with the Sprint Unlimited on the final lap, every other race in Speedweeks has seen a spectacular finish, with photo finishes in Duel 1, and both the Truck Series and Nationwide Series events, and a big last lap crash in Duel 2. Regardless of what happens, we can all sit back and enjoy one of the great sporting events in the world, the 56th running of the Daytona 500.
2014 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1: Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 2: Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin
Row 3: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon
Row 4: Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch
Row 5: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard
Row 6: Josh Wise, Brian Scott
Row 7: Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne
Row 8: A.J. Allmendinger, Kyle Larson
Row 9: David Gilliland, Landon Cassill
Row 10: Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Row 11: Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray
Row 12: Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte
Row 13: Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte
Row 14: Danica Patrick, Casey Mears
Row 15: J.J. Yeley, Carl Edwards
Row 16: Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson
Row 17: Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 18: Joey Logano, Michael Annett
Row 19: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick
Row 20: Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier
Row 21: Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip
Row 22: David Ragan
Failed to Qualify: Eric McClure, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Ryan Truex, Michael McDowell, Dave Blaney
Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)