The Daytona 500 is the most prestigious race of the entire NASCAR season, and chances are you’ve already heard talk about the drivers who’ve won before. And why not? NASCAR puts emphasis on driver championships first and foremost, but Daytona comes next, and the drivers who’ve visited victory lane there are a veritable who’s who of champions and legends of the sport.
This weekend, the majority of the field you’ll be seeing vying for the win will be going for their first Daytona 500 victory, meaning the chances of a repeat winner aren’t exactly high. But there are still nine former champions of the race in the field, and we haven’t had a new winner of the race since 2011, when Trevor Bayne scored his first – and, so far, only – victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Since then, it’s been Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., respectively.
So OK, maybe the chances aren’t that low of a repeat winner after all. Perhaps once Sunday evening comes, we’ll see a familiar face hoisting the Daytona 500 trophy. After all, it’s restrictor plate racing, so everyone’s a little more equalized than they normally are.
Here are the ones you should be keeping an eye on and which drivers probably won’t be a factor.
Would he even be in the race had it not been for Brian Vickers, the normal driver of the Michael Waltrip Racing No. 55, and his necessity to miss the first two races of the season after surgery? Probably; though Michael Waltrip retired from full-time racing after the 2009 season, he’s been in Daytona and the other restrictor plate races every year since. But being in a more primary car for his self-owned team will matter little. The two-time Daytona 500 winner has gone the longest of the group without a victory and has never seemed to be able to get the job done in terms of getting to the point of the field, despite showing he can at least get in the general proximity of the lead (two top 5s in 2013). But if you want to pull for an underdog of this group, here you go.
8. Trevor Bayne
Ever since that magical 2011 win, it’s been a bit downhill for Trevor Bayne – not just in the 500, but in general. This is the first race in his new digs as a full-time driver for Roush Fenway Racing in the No. 6 following four straight seasons of part-time runs, coming off a 2014 season where he scored an average finish of 32.2 in 12 races for Wood Brothers Racing. His crash in his Budweiser Duel doesn’t help matters, either. Decent speed this weekend, but can lightning strike twice? Probably not.
7. Ryan Newman
It’s at this point in the rankings where everything evens up a bit, and Ryan Newman is by no means a poor plate racer, not to mention that he’s coming off nearly scoring a Sprint Cup championship in 2014. So why so low? His Daytona spread wasn’t great last year (22nd, 24th) and in the last few years you haven’t felt that sense of urgency from him; for many drivers, it’s obvious that the Daytona 500 is something for which they pine. You don’t tend to get that impression from Newman. Almost seems like just another race for him.
Higher than Newman because Jamie McMurray always seems to run great at these types of tracks. Why? Hard to say, but McMurray and his team seem to place a lot of importance on the big ones, from the Daytona 500 to the Brickyard 400 and the All-Star Race. You just can’t count the 2010 winner out here. Ever.
5. Jeff Gordon
Don’t consider this weekend a Cinderella story, because it’s just not happening – the pole win for Jeff Gordon last Sunday may make him the sentimental favorite in 2015, what with this being his final full season and, probably, last Daytona 500. But don’t be fooled. Gordon hasn’t won this race in 10 years and has only one top 10 there since 2012. And he has teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to contend against. Nah. Cool win if so, but nah.
The defending series champion will probably break into the 2015 season with a good run, but you just can’t list him higher up than here. Despite some noteworthy results at the track the last few years to go along with his 2007 Daytona 500 win, Kevin Harvick is part of Stewart-Haas Racing, which has been incredibly middling as a whole during Speedweeks across its four teams. Harvick’s the best of the bunch, but so far that hasn’t been saying much at all.
At least Jimmie Johnson has a better track record recently than teammate Gordon, paired with his second-fastest time in qualifying last Sunday. Here’s the difference between Johnson and the two below: you’re not sitting in your chair at home and thinking, “Ooh, Johnson, yeah, his car’s strong. Like, the strongest.” OK, maybe your inner monologue didn’t go that way, but point is this: Johnson’s had a top-of-the-line car, but no one’s calling the No. 48 the car to beat. Won his duel, but had the next two drivers been there, would he still be standing in victory lane?
2. Matt Kenseth
Now, the No. 20, that’s a car the pundits have been referring to as one of the teams to beat. Call Matt Kenseth a man with a chip on his shoulder, too: he didn’t win a race last year after scoring seven in 2013, and that’s despite being with a team that remained a championship contender all season long. His No. 20 for Joe Gibbs Racing has looked stout since the cars took to the track here and his Budweiser Duels performance was incredibly satisfying as well.
Boring! Boring pick! Even if you’ve never followed NASCAR before, you probably know this is boring, predictable, safe, et cetera. Here’s the thing: oh well. Too bad. If you’re not a Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fan, you’re probably gonna have a bad time this weekend. In fact, you already are; he just cranked out a win in the first Budweiser Duel, doing so by launching himself from the rear of the field to the front and staying there with nary a serious challenge. Strongest car there this weekend. It just makes sense.