Daytona 500 2014: Breaking Down Top Drivers to Win Prestigious Race

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Daytona 500 2014: Breaking Down Top Drivers to Win Prestigious Race
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 2014 Daytona 500 is shaping up to be a spectacular edition of this legendary race, and the field is loaded with skilled drivers who have a shot at winning. However, there are a few racers who should be considered favorites when the race begins on Feb. 23 at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

After a highly competitive qualifying round, rookie Austin Dillon emerged as the pole-sitter heading into the big race with a scorching time of 45.914 seconds. Needless to say, he and his team were thrilled with the result, as shown by Motor Racing Network’s Dustin Long:

As noted by Jim Utter of The Charlotte Observer, he's the second rookie in a row to achieve this honor:

Here's a look at when and where to catch the race, along with the top qualifiers, followed by a closer examination of the drivers with the best shot to claim the title at the 2014 Daytona 500.

 

When: Sunday, Feb. 23, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

Watch: Fox

 

Top Qualifiers

Finish Driver Time
1 Austin Dillon 45.914
2 Martin Truex Jr. 45.953
3 Greg Biffle 45.961
4 Carl Edwards 45.986
5 Ryan Newman 45.987
6 Brad Keselowski 46.084
7 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 46.104
8 Jeff Gordon 46.144
9 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 46.153
10 Paul Menard 46.173

NASCAR.com

 

Drivers To Watch

Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson is the current Sprint Cup champion, and he's won that honor six times now. He's also a two-time winner of the Daytona 500, most recently winning the race last season over Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

He spoke with “CBS This Morning” recently, via CBSNews.com, about the big race, making an interesting comment about how his sport's biggest race is at the beginning of the season:

Our sport was founded here in Daytona Beach back in the late '40s. This racetrack was put here, and really the spectacle of all NASCAR racing started here. It’s kind of hard to have the Super Bowl of racing start off as our first event, but it’s the history of our sport, and we’re all geared up and ready to go.

One thing that could ruin Johnson's bid for a repeat at Daytona is of a technical nature. According to Fox Sports, via MotorsportTalk.NBCSports.com, his car was found to be, "1/10,000th of an inch too wide and the side skirts were less than 1/64th of an inch too long."

Johnson's crew worked hard to fix the problems, but it will be interesting to see if the tweaks have a negative impact on how his car runs on race day. 

 

Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Like Johnson, Matt Kenseth is a multiple winner at the Daytona 500, having won the race in 2009 and 2012. Kenseth finished the 2013 season just 19 points behind Johnson, and he won seven races throughout the 2013 season. 

It was the best season of his career. Nick Bromberg of Yahoo! Sports provides a big reason for the leap: 

Entering 2013, the most laps Kenseth had led in a season was 1,132, which happened in 2006. He obliterated that last year, leading 1,783 laps. A possible reason? Kenseth had far fewer cars to pass to get to the front. In 2012, his average starting position was 13.3, the best of his career. In his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing, it jumped all the way to 8.7.

As a result of his recent dominance, fellow competitor Brad Keselowski recently called Kenseth "the Calvin Johnson of NASCAR," in an interview with FoxSports.com's Jimmy Traina.

Kenseth will be in the thick of things on Sunday, and nobody should be surprised if he ends up winning the Daytona 500 for a third time. 

 

Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing

Austin Dillon is a rookie, which means he's never been on this stage.

He was easily the fastest driver during qualifying, beating out Martin Truex Jr. by 0.039 seconds. For many casual fans, this was a shocking result, but David Caraviello of NASCAR.com believes people should have seen it coming:

Really, it shouldn't have been a surprise -- Dillon was fastest in a January test at Daytona that was shortened by rain to a single day, and cars owned by or affiliated with his Richard Childress Racing team dominated both qualifying practices on Saturday.

Driving fast when there are no other cars on the road isn't the true test, however. Dillon must be able to conquer not only the track, but also his fellow competitors and his own nerves when the race begins. 

His car is certainly fast enough to win, and it will be fascinating to see if the rookie driver has the chops to put the entire package together at Daytona. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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