As the countdown to the 58th Daytona 500's green flag closes to just over a month away, race fans are starting to get the itch that a new season is almost here.
And at about the same time, fans start thinking about who they think will be the early favorite to win the Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.
The Speedway wants to put on a good show, particularly since this will be the first 500 run since the completion of a $400 million makeover of the venerable 2.5-mile, high-speed superspeedway.
And the drivers want to put on a good show, as well.
Sure, there’s the prestige and honor that comes with being a 500 winner, but there’s additional incentive for drivers who may have something to prove, are seeking revenge, want to show others they have what it takes to win the 500 and want to show they're not too old to win it.
Of course, winning the race also will put quite a bit of cash in your pocket, and that's usually the biggest incentive of all.
Here’s five drivers I consider as the early favorites to win on Feb. 21:
The defending Sprint Cup champion wowed everyone with how he not only came back in 11 weeks from an injury that most likely would have sidelined another driver maybe a half-season or more, but how he wound up winning his Cup crown as well.
Now that he’s earned that elusive first championship, there is one other thing Busch wants to check off his bucket list: winning the Daytona 500.
Think of it, ending one season as champ and starting the next season as the winner of NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
It doesn’t get much better than that, for sure.
Sure, Joey Logano is the defending Daytona 500 champion. And while he has a great chance to repeat in 2016, the one guy I feel has the most incentive of anyone to win is Matt Kenseth.
After his conflict with Logano late last season at Kansas and then Martinsville, earning the normally mild-mannered Kenseth a two-race suspension, I wish I could bottle and sell Kenseth’s incentive to win the season's biggest race.
It would not only help him atone for some of last season’s shenanigans, but it would also lay down a bar to every driver in the series—and particularly Logano—that even at the age of 44, he still has what it takes to be a Daytona 500 champion for the third time in his career (previously won in 2009 and 2012).
You can’t overlook sentimentalism when it comes to the Daytona 500.
Think back to the buildup to last year’s race and how virtually everyone was picking Jeff Gordon to win Daytona to kick off a season that would likely end with his retiring and winning a fifth career Sprint Cup championship.
Unfortunately, neither happened. Gordon got wrecked late in last year’s 500, and he finished third in the championship—instead of first—as he drove off into the sunset.
Stewart has perhaps even greater incentive. He has won numerous times at Daytona in the annual summer race, but he’s never won a Daytona 500.
This will be his 18th and final attempt at winning the Great American Race—a streak that almost equals the 20 starts it took before the late Dale Earnhardt won Daytona for the first and only time in his career.
Smoke is most definitely the sentimental favorite. And if he does win, not only will it all but guarantee Stewart a berth in his final Chase for the Sprint Cup, but could a potential fourth championship also be in the cards?
After all, we can dream, can’t we?
Lost in all the Chase shuffle of the Kenseth-Logano skirmish—and the way Kyle Busch roared to the championship last season—was how well older brother Kurt Busch performed in the Chase.
Had it not been for a 34th-place showing at Martinsville, Busch very likely could have made the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
And if that happened, it would have been a very close battle between Kurt, Kyle and Kevin Harvick, in my assessment.
And let’s not forget Kurt made last year’s Chase, even despite being suspended for the first three races (due to domestic-violence allegations).
Statistically, Busch had his best season overall since 2009. Imagine how much better he would have done if he had not missed those first three races.
Busch is likely in the best place he’s been in probably at least the last four or five years. While he’s come close to winning the 500 in the past, he’s always somehow come up short.
That finally may not be the case in 2016.
Yes, I’m going way out on a limb with this one.
I admit I was originally going to go with Carl Edwards—and maybe Danica Patrick as a long shot.
But each time I thought of the latter two, I kept going back to Larson. Here’s a kid who has “can’t miss” and “natural born winner” written all over him. Still, the northern California native has yet to win his first career Sprint Cup race after two seasons.
After experiencing NASCAR’s notorious sophomore jinx, Larson is primed to have a breakout season in 2016. And what better way to break out than to win the season-opening and season's biggest race?
Plus, Larson would also finally realize expectations of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time.
There are a few others who likely qualify to be included in this argument as well, including defending Daytona 500 champ Joey Logano, teammate Brad Keselowski, 2014 champ Kevin Harvick, two-time 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., two-time 500 winner Jimmie Johnson, as well as the aforementioned Edwards and Patrick.
But for a variety of reasons, they’re different stories for a different time.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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