It seems like we were just crowning Kyle Busch with his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship and watching Jeff Gordon ride off into the sunset. Yet drivers are only a few days away from firing up the engines on the shores of Daytona Beach, Florida.
The 58th running of the Daytona 500 is next weekend, and it kicks off the 36-race, nine-month marathon that is the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
The headliners are usually the favorites in the sport's version of the Super Bowl, as it’s the once-a-year opportunity to cement a legacy among NASCAR greats. But the nature of restrictor-plate racing that packs nearly all cars together throughout allows dark horses to lurk late.
Trevor Bayne took the checkered flag in the 2011 event the day after he turned 20 in what remains his only career win. Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003), Ward Burton (2002) and Ernie Irvan (1991) are a few other former 500 winners who didn’t find Victory Lane much outside the Great American Race.
Then there are cases where established drivers—such as Jamie McMurray (2010) and Ryan Newman (2008)—surprise as long-shot winners with late passes against the favorites.
Here is a look at a few sleepers who may surprise this year along the shores of the Atlantic.
Edwards may not seem like a "sleeper" at face value given he’s a regular championship contender and finished fifth in last year’s standings.
But a closer look at his restrictor-plate record—particularly in the Daytona 500—reveals a potential victory would be a borderline upset.
Edwards has 14 top 10s at restrictor-plate tracks over his 12-year career, including a second-place finish surrendered on the final lap of the 2011 Daytona 500. But since 2013, Edwards has registered icy-cold finishes in both events at Daytona of 41st, 23rd, 37th, 17th, 29th and 33rd.
The fan-favorite Edwards has won two races in each of the last three seasons and will look to build on his fifth-place finish last year after teammate Kyle Busch brought the Cup back to Joe Gibbs Racing for the first time in a decade.
Edwards wouldn’t be a major upset to win the 500, but given his streaky past in NASCAR's biggest race, he’s definitely a sleeper.
After a stunning accident involving Tony Stewart, the three-time champ will be replaced by veteran Brian Vickers in his No. 14 for the Daytona 500.
Stewart suffered a back fracture while racing in the California desert last week. It will keep him out for the foreseeable future in what will be his final season.
His substitution is Vickers, 32, who has been sidelined with blood clots four times since 2010 and was limited to just two races last year.
Vickers’ best finish at Daytona was a second-place run in the 2014 Coke Zero 400, but he’s a former restrictor-plate winner, having taken the checkers at Talladega in the fall of 2006.
Stewart-Haas Racing fields top-of-the-line teams, having placed Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the Chase last year, meaning Vickers will have the equipment to contend coupled with a full eight days of Speedweeks to prepare.
But since he’s only raced a full season twice since his first blood-clot diagnosis six years ago, he won’t be among the favorites, which is why he’s a great sleeper pick.
This will be the first Great American Race since 1992 without Jeff Gordon, yet the future Hall of Famer’s iconic No. 24 will still circle Daytona's 31-degree banking next Sunday.
Rookie Chase Elliott, son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott, will take the wheel as Gordon’s replacement in the No. 24 car with Hendrick Motorsports and make his debut at Daytona.
Owner Rick Hendrick has a well-chronicled history of success in the Daytona 500, with Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combining for six wins while driving under Hendrick's banner.
The pressure will be high on Elliott among the fans and media given the gaping void he’s expected to fill over the course of his career, but it’d be a shock to see him come in and win in just his sixth career Sprint Cup race.
Elliott, the 2014 Xfinity Series champion, is primed to develop as one of the future faces of NASCAR. A shocking upset on the sport’s biggest stage seems unlikely, but it wouldn’t be the first time a 20-year-old rookie upended the big dogs, as Bayne proved in 2011.