Another year, another chance to start the Sprint Cup season off right with a win in its most illustrious race: the Daytona 500.
This year, as with any other, the Great American Race offers drivers a huge opportunity to put a bad year behind them, or continue the momentum from a great season last year. And especially with a new car in the mix, any driver can come out of the gate and score a victory—from a rookie like Trevor Bayne two years ago, to a former champion like Matt Kenseth last year.
But for these ten drivers with something to prove, a win at Daytona just might mean a little more than to the rest of the field. Who can do the most with a big season-opening victory? Read on:
Stenhouse is certainly one of the most qualified rookies we've seen in Sprint Cup in years. His credentials: back-to-back Nationwide Series championships, scoring eight wins, 52 top-10s, and seven poles in 67 starts.
His task: replace a driver who scored 24 race wins, the 2003 Cup championship, and two Daytona 500s (including last year's) in 13 full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing. Not causing the big one in the race's final laps as he did in a one-off ride last year would also be a step forward. Good luck, rookie.
Bayne's career has sort of stalled since his unlikely Daytona 500 triumph with the Wood Brothers two years ago. Since then, he saw a spider bite derail his Nationwide title hopes with Roush Fenway Racing in 2011 and sponsorship woes keep him off track for most of 2012.
This will be Bayne's third consecutive season of running a limited schedule in the No. 21 Ford, after scoring two top-10s in 16 starts last season. There's a chance that he graduates from RFR's Nationwide program to a full-time Cup ride in 2014, sponsorship permitting, and one way to attract more money is to become a two-time Daytona 500 winner.
Since losing his ride at Furniture Row Racing to Kurt Busch, Smith has taken the Elliott Sadler route back to the Nationwide Series in order to re-establish himself as worthy of a top Cup ride. But he'll still get to run the Daytona 500 for Phoenix Racing, which will run on a race-by-race basis this year.
Smith's Nationwide ride with JR Motorsports appears to be fully funded, but a big finish at Daytona might go towards attracting sponsors for more Cup races. It might even start the conversation about Smith moving back up full-time in 2014.
Dillon will make his Sprint Cup debut in the No. 33 Chevrolet at Daytona as part of a limited schedule with Richard Childress Racing and Phoenix Racing while chasing a Nationwide championship. The plan is for him to move up to RCR's Cup team full-time in 2014 after gaining experience at some of the series' toughest tracks.
As with any rookie, Dillon has plenty to prove. Is he ready for Sprint Cup's biggest race, with his only two career Cup starts coming at Kansas and Michigan? Can he drive smartly and patiently enough to hang around to the end? And what will he do if he makes it to the final few laps?
Here's the opportunity Busch probably wanted last year: a decently competitive independent team with the chance to propel him forward for the year after. That's not a knock on the quality of Phoenix Racing's people—just their funding, scarcely an issue at a team owned by the sponsor itself.
Busch is in the mix for a ride at Richard Childress Racing in 2014, with Kevin Harvick on the way out and Jeff Burton likely to be replaced as well. If Busch can score a huge finish at Daytona and use the momentum to keep Furniture Row Racing in the top 20 in points all year, that opportunity just might come.
Logano is the latest driver in Penske Racing's second car, which has seen Kurt Busch, A.J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish Jr., and Dave Blaney (albeit only in practice) run it in the past two years. He comes to Penske after four mediocre years at Joe Gibbs Racing, which were marked by tons of promise, Nationwide Series dominance, and only two Cup victories.
Though Logano remains one of the youngest drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit, the slow start to his career suggests that Penske may be as good of an opportunity as he's going to get from now on. Starting off on the right foot and proving he can keep up with his championship-winning teammate, Brad Keselowski, would be a huge plus.
Michael Waltrip Racing became a bona fide Sprint Cup contender last season, and much of that was thanks to Bowyer, who won three races on the way to second place in points. The challenge this year is to back that up, and there's no better way to start than by scoring a strong finish at Daytona.
A victory would be Bowyer's first at the track since winning the summer 2009 Nationwide race from the pole, and give Waltrip his first Daytona 500 win as an owner after two as a driver in 2001 and 2003.
How do you follow up a five-win championship season that launched you into superstardom, gave your legendary owner his first title in 40 years of trying, and sent out your longtime manufacturer on a high note? If you're Brad Keselowski, that answer should be "win the Daytona 500."
The cards may be stacked against him. Keselowski will drive a Ford for the first time, Roger Penske no longer has manufacturer exclusivity as he did with Dodge, and this was the one race that the No. 2 team failed to finish last year. But at the track where he became a social media trendsetter by tweeting photos from within the car, Keselowski could bring his whirlwind year full circle with the victory.
Why would Johnson ever be on a "most to prove" list anywhere, for any reason? Here are his finishes at Daytona since 2010: 35th, 31st, 27th, 20th, 42nd, and 36th. In fact, since winning the 2006 Daytona 500, Johnson has only two top-10s, and no other finishes better than 20th.
That adds up to an average finish of 25.4 since 2006. That's also firmly within "something to prove" territory.
Patrick's Daytona 500 debut last year was compromised by a second-lap accident that limited her to making laps well out of contention after extensive repairs. It was a disappointment for the crossover fanbase that has followed her to NASCAR, as well as for Patrick herself.
This year, her first as a full-time Sprint Cup driver, Patrick has a chance to do it over and plenty to prove along the way. A good run at Daytona might silence the critics, even briefly, who think that she's graduated to the highest level too quickly. But it also might serve as a huge confidence builder for her after a trying 2012 season.
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