Daytona 500: Brad Keselowski, Top 5 Under-the-Radar Drivers Who Could Win

Michael Desjardins@TheMDesjardinsCorrespondent IIFebruary 17, 2012

Daytona 500: Brad Keselowski, Top 5 Under-the-Radar Drivers Who Could Win

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    The Daytona 500 is one of the most unpredictable races in all of motorsports.

    With its pack-racing, reliance on the draft, and the always-looming threat of multi-car pileups, picking out a winner in this race can be a total crapshoot.

    As we approach the 2012 Daytona 500, its 54th running since its inception in 1959, who will come out the winner? Will it be someone who's been there before, like Jeff Gordon?

    Could it be a veteran who's never won here before, like Tony Stewart or Mark Martin?

    Or could we have a surprise first-time winner, like Trevor Bayne last season?

    Here are five drivers who you may not have given a second thought, but do have the potential to win the race.

A.J. Allmendinger

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    A.J. Allmendinger doesn't have an impeccable track record, nor does he get much attention, but he did catch the eye of Roger Penske.

    After being released from Richard Petty Motorsports, Dinger will be racing in the No. 22 car in 2012.

    You may not know it, but he has steadily improved with each season he's been in this sport. Though he's raced since at the Cup level since 2007, it wasn't until 2009 that he ran in all 36 races. That year, he had an average finish of 22.4. Last season, his average finish was 16.4 and finished 15th in points, so he's definitely getting there.

    Racing for a much better team, in Penske Racing, will also help.

    Surprisingly, Allemdinger has finished pretty well at Daytona.

    In the 2009 Daytona 500, he finished in third place. Last season, he finished 11th in the 500, and 10th in the July race.

    My only question is that because he's racing on the only Dodge team in Sprint Cup, will he have anyone to work with (especially at the end of the race) besides Brad Keselowski?

    Speaking of Keselowski...

Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski certainly knows how to drive the wheels off that blue No. 2 car.

    Last season, he won three races (Kansas, Pocono and Bristol) and had the huge mid-summer run, and earned his first Chase berth, thanks to the newly-established wild-card rule.

    He continued to finish strong and stayed competitive for most of the Chase, before finishing fitfh in points.

    What's even more amazing is that he was able to do this despite having a broken ankle for half the season, suffered when he crashed at the Road Atlanta circuit (he'd win the Pocono race just days later).

    He also knows how to win on restrictor-plate tracks, having done so at Talladega in 2009.

    However, in five races at Daytona, he has yet to finish higher than 15th.

    Could this year's Daytona 500 be his?

Paul Menard

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    A lot of people don't give Paul Menard enough credit as a driver, because his father, John Menard, sponsors him with his company, Menards (believed to be the third-largest chain of hardware stores in the United States, behind only Lowe's and The Home Depot).

    However, like Allmendinger, Paul Menard is another guy who's rising up at the Sprint Cup level.

    In his first season with Richard Childress Racing, Menard recorded four top-five, eight top-10 finishes, along with his first career win at Indianapolis.

    Daytona is a track on which Menard has done decent. He's finished on the lead lap in every race, other than the 2009 July race. In 2011, he finished ninth in the 500 and eighth in the 400.

    He also has three teammates to work with throughout the race: Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Elliott Sadler (who's running part-time).

    Menard could be a real dark horse to win this thing.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could be this year's Trevor Bayne.

    Though he's only raced once at the Cup level, he did finish 11th in Charlotte, in the No. 21 Wood Brothers car.

    Last year, he raced in the Nationwide Series, winning twice, had 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes and won the Nationwide Series championship.

    This year, he'll continue to race at the Nationwide level while also racing part-time for Roush Fenway Racing.

    Though he's yet to race at Daytona at the Cup level, at the Nationwide level, he did finish eighth in last season's February race, and third in the 2010 July race.

    Stenhouse Jr. has been competitive with the likes of Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski on this track just to name a few.

    He'll also have drafting assistance from his fellow Roush teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, which is a big help.

Regan Smith

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    Yeah, it may be bit of a stretch, but Regan Smith did win at Darlington last season, and that was even more surprising than Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500.

    In addition, he did finish seventh in last year's 500.

    There's always bound to be a "Big One" at this track. If (or should I say when?) it happens—and Smith can avoid trouble—he could be in the thick of it by the end of the race.