NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Winless Drivers Who Could Surprise at Daytona

For the second week in a row, the Sprint Cup Series is visiting a track where the usual suspects aren’t the only options as the equality of the cars puts a large percentage of the race in the drivers’ hands. There’s a good chance the series could see its 11th different winner of 2016 and, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is probably the driver that most fans expect to capitalize on the opportunity, there are a handful of drivers in the game that could contend for the win – and the Chase spot that goes with it – but don’t be surprised if they do.

1. Austin Dillon

At Daytona: 6 races; 0 wins; 1 top 5; 4 top 10s; 1 pole; 12.5 average finish (1st among active drivers)

Dillon wasn’t a restrictor plate standout in the XFINITY or Truck series, but he’s proven to be one in Sprint Cup. That shouldn’t really be a surprise. Even when they struggle elsewhere, the Richard Childress Racing teams are perennial contenders at Daytona and Talladega on the strength of Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines. In fact, Dillon’s teammates Paul Menard and Ryan Newman have solid average finish numbers at Daytona as well

Perhaps Dillon’s most memorable ride at Daytona was last summer, when he went for a wild ride as his No. 3 car got airborne coming to the checkers. A win would most certainly all but erase that memory, and Dillon has the numbers at Daytona to show he’s a contender. He shouldn’t really be a surprise, but because he hasn’t been a standout overall, he’s likely not at the top of many fans’ lists.

2. Clint Bowyer

At Daytona: 21 races; 0 wins; 3 top 5s; 10 top 10s; 16.0 average finish (4th among active drivers)

Bowyer was a dark horse favorite last week at Sonoma, where he has an excellent record and entered the weekend leading all drivers in average finish at the road course. He won’t garner as much attention this week … but he should.

His Daytona average is good for fourth among all active drivers. Keep in mind that an average finishing position on the plate tracks is often negatively impacted by involvement in multi-car crashes, so the numbers may be better than what first glance may indicate. Bowyer has been good for a top 10 in roughly half his Daytona starts, meaning that when he avoids the Big One, he’s a factor.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
David Ragan is a legitimate threat at restrictor-plate races. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

3. David Ragan

At Daytona: 19 races; 1 win; 3 top 5s; 6 top 10s; 20.6 average finish (20th among active drivers)

Ragan is the only driver in this group to have a Daytona win, which he got in the 2011 summer race. He’s also won at Talladega, running for an underfunded team similar to where he’s racing now, proof positive that he’s as good as anyone out there on any given Sunday, or Saturday night, as the case will be this weekend. The hardest part for Ragan could be finding drafting partners who will work with him, but if he can make a run, he can make it to the front.

4. Casey Mears

At Daytona: 24 races; 0 wins; 2 top 5s; 6 top 10s; 20.3 average finish (19th among active drivers)

Another deceptively good plate racer, Mears has come close to Victory Lane on the big tracks a couple of times, including finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the 2006 Daytona 500 and getting single-car Germain Racing its lone top-5 finish to date in 2014. He was in contention to win his Daytona 500 qualifying race this year before a fuel miscalculation ended his hopes, so expect a strong finish on Saturday night if he can avoid trouble.

5. Kasey Kahne

At Daytona: 25 races; 0 wins; 2 top 5s; 8 top 10; 19.6 average finish (13th among active drivers)

Kahne has earned a reputation for his prowess on intermediate tracks, but he’s been solid at Daytona as well, with an average finish that is better than a lot of his peers. A drafting partner could be his biggest question mark, as teammates Earnhardt and Johnson tend to team up together, and Chase Elliott is still a rookie, though a talented one. Kahne is often overshadowed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates on the plate tracks, and often rightfully so, but he should at least be on the dark horse radar if not at the top of the list.

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