Under-the-Radar Threats to Win the Daytona 500
With the Daytona 500 only days away, various drivers have already put themselves on point as favorites to win this Sunday. Austin Dillon, who won the pole for the race Sunday, could very well become the second rookie to win the 500 (Trevor Bayne won it in 2011). Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited for the second time Saturday and also has a Duel win (2008) and a win in the July 2008 Nationwide race at Daytona.
Other drivers that could be considered include Kevin Harvick, who has seven victories at Daytona, including the 2007 Daytona 500; Greg Biffle, who has run strong at Daytona throughout his career; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose relationship with Daytona is one of the most well-known in all of motorsports.
But what about the other drivers who haven't been mentioned during Speedweeks 2014? Here's a look at the drivers who could be unexpected champions of the 500.
It seems strange to consider David Ragan a threat to win the Daytona 500 considering he drives for an organization that hasn't accomplished much, but keep in mind that he is one of the most skilled superspeedway drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Ragan's two wins came at Daytona and Talladega, but on top of that, he has fared well in the 500. Aside from almost winning the 500 in 2011 before succumbing to a late penalty, he finished fifth as a rookie in the 2007 edition and a sixth in the 2009 edition. Overall, he has posted 11 top-10s at Daytona and Talladega.
The Fords at Front Row Motorsports have run well on the restrictor plate tracks, with driver David Gilliland posting strong finishes such as a third at Daytona in 2011 and a runner-up finish behind teammate Ragan at Talladega in 2013.
Come the 500, the competition will have to take Ragan and the No. 34 team seriously.
A win in the 500 could be the perfect ending to Kurt Busch's comeback trail. With five top-fives to go along with six top-10s (in the 500 alone), Busch has also done quite well in the July race at Daytona. He also has a Budweiser Shootout win and a Gatorage Duel win, both in 2011, and he even led the most laps in the 2007 Daytona 500 before a collision with Tony Stewart ended his day.
With a new home at Stewart-Haas Racing, he is faced with his best opportunity to win since Penske. For a former Cup champion like Busch to go so long without hoisting a trophy in Victory Lane is almost unbearable to watch, yet he is poised to change all of that come Sunday.
Of all the SHR cars entered in Sunday's race, Busch stands as the driver with the most to gain in the 500. Expect him to make a race of it.
Martin Truex Jr.
By clinching the outside starting spot for the 500, Truex showed the rest of the field that he intends to carry on Furniture Row Racing's ascent to the upper echelon of NASCAR success. The team's association with Richard Childress Racing has proven effective given its front row spot in the 500, but considering how strong this team was in the latter half of 2013, Truex could stand a chance come Sunday.
A former 500 pole winner (2009), Truex has been up front in the 500 multiple times and almost won the 2010 edition before finishing sixth. He's run decently at Daytona and has had much better luck Talladega when it comes to superspeedway racing, but his association with Furniture Row and Barney Visser looks promising for the 500.
Restrictor plate racing has been a Chevy-Toyota game as of late, but if Joey Logano's run in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited is any indicator, then expect the Penske Fords to be in the midst of things. On Saturday, Logano finished fourth, two spots behind teammate Brad Keselowski, and led 11 laps.
Despite only having a total of six top-10s at Daytona and Talladega (with an emphasis on Talladega), Logano is no stranger to the lead pack. He's a smart drafter who has a strong relationship with teammate Keselowski, so expect him to go to the front Sunday.
Along with teammate Logano, Brad Keselowski could very well be a threat for the checkered flag at Sunday's 500. Despite having only one top-10 in the 500 (he was fourth in last year's event), Keselowski has won twice at Talladega and has run well on the superspeedways in the Nationwide Series.
He has a great relationship with Logano in the draft, and when they hook up the Penske Fords, they're bound to be a formidable couple every time.
Keselowski has let it be known that he really wants a win at Daytona, and following his performance in the Sprint Unlimited Saturday, he could very well be the man to beat.
Despite being the least-established driver in the Richard Childress Racing camp, Paul Menard should not be counted out by any means. He's a decent superspeedway driver, with a pair of top-fives at Talladega and three consecutive top-10s at Daytona, starting with the 2011 Daytona 500 and ending at the same race a year later.
Menard knows his way around Daytona, having earned his only pole there in July 2008. Yet with the results that the ECR engines having been showing during Daytona Speedweeks 2014, Menard stands a chance of having a career day Sunday.
All three RCR cars posted fast speeds during qualifying, with Menard's rookie teammate, Austin Dillon, snatching the pole and Childress satellite team Furniture Row Racing taking the outside pole. So Menard's odds for the 500 are very good.
Ambrose may be considered a long shot, but don't count him out. He has a pair of superspeedway top-10s from early in his Sprint Cup career, but that doesn't mean his No. 9 Stanley Tools Ford can't hang in the lead draft.
Ambrose has put himself in contention to win the Sprint Unlimited the last two times he's been entered in the race only to be shuffled back due to contact. He needs to keep his nose out of trouble and hook up with teammate Aric Almirola early on, as the Petty Fords are strong in the draft. If he can manage, then he'll be near the front when it matters most.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @ThatSheltonGuy