The commencement of the NASCAR season begins with one of the most unpredictable races of the year. The Daytona 500 has a way of lifting rather unknown drivers up onto the pedestal of stock car racing in the course of a single afternoon.
Very few, outside of NASCAR's most knowledgeable hardcore fans, would be able to recall names such as Derrike Cope and Trevor Bayne had these drivers not put together an effort capable of winning this specific race.
Due to the manner in which drivers are forced to race at Daytona International Speedway, predicting winners is almost impossible.
In 2011, there were four restrictor plate races: Two featured surprise winners, one garnered Clint Bowyer his sole win of the season and the other was won by Jimmie Johnson in a tie for the closest finish in NASCAR history (.002 seconds).
Therefore, trying to pinpoint a strong contender to win is a slippery slope.
Usually, a "dark horse" is considered a team/individual that would surprise most by winning.
Within the context of the Daytona 500, the term "dark horse" is almost unfair because, as long as any single driver is still running within the last 30 laps or so, he/she still has a fighting chance to win.
Additionally, because this particular race offers a cash incentive unlike any other in NASCAR, cars are more apt to stay in the race as long as possible.
To cite a quick example, last year's last-place finisher (J.J. Yeley, 43rd place) pocketed $268,500 after completing a mere 10 laps because of engine trouble. Had he been able to remain in the race and somehow sneak in between 15th and 20th place, there was potential for him to bank at least $50,000 more.
The bottom line is that owners and crew chiefs from even some of the most underfunded teams in the sport are more willing to keep their car on the track due to the financial incentive. In other words, there are usually more cars on the track at the end of the Daytona 500 than almost all other races.
In sum, "dark horses" are actually much more luminescent at the Great American Race.
Here are a few participants that could be considered, at the very least, "shaded horses" at the race on Feb. 26:
Trevor Bayne: He pulled off a huge upset by winning last year and set a record as the youngest winner of the race in NASCAR history. Who's to say he cannot find that magic again in the course of an afternoon?
Juan Pablo Montoya: In the last two Daytona 500s Montoya has posted a Top-10 finish in each. This could be his year, though it is doubtful that many will pick, or expect, him to win.
Jamie McMurray: After a poor showing in 2011, this former Daytona 500 winner could thrust himself back into the spotlight with a return to Victory Lane here. It also helps that Montoya, his Earnhardt-Ganassi teammate, will be drafting with him.
Regan Smith: His drafting effort with Kurt Busch during Preseason Thunder was impressive, and this tandem was able to break the 206 mph mark. If he and Busch are still near each other at the end they may threaten a win.
Paul Menard: I have picked Paul Menard, based on a hunch, to be a breakout star in 2012. There is practically no better way, short of making the Chase, for him to do this besides winning here.
Marcos Ambrose: Though his struggles at oval tracks are well documented, the restrictor plate-style race is where Ambrose probably has the best chance to right those wrongs.
The "dark horses" are saddled up, but will they have the horsepower to cross the line first and forge themselves into NASCAR history? We will know by the late afternoon of Feb. 26.
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