NASCAR Drivers with the Best Chance to Win Their 1st Daytona 500 in 2016
Pop quiz: How many of the 40 drivers in Sunday’s 58th running of the Daytona 500 have actually won the Great American Race? 15? 20? 25?
The correct answer is nine (just under one-quarter of the field): Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson (all with two wins each), followed by Ryan Newman, defending 500 winner Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.
Among those still seeking their first Daytona 500 win: defending Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott, Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, Brian Vickers, Casey Mears, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., David Ragan and David Gilliland.
And then there’s Tony Stewart. He was looking forward to winning his first 500 in what would have been his last appearance in the race, given he’s retiring at the end of this season.
However, an unfortunate ATV accident in late January and resulting surgery, has sidelined Stewart for an unknown period of time, meaning his last chance at 500 glory is over before he had a chance to get started.
Let’s take a look at the 12 drivers who may have the best shot of their career at winning their first Daytona 500 on Sunday.
Not winning the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship had been among the biggest frustrations that Kyle Busch experienced in his career.
Of course, he rallied back from serious injuries and missing 11 races to win the 2015 Sprint Cup championship.
Now all that’s left to check off on Busch’s bucket list is to win the Great American Race.
Can he do it Sunday? Daytona owes him a big one from last year’s wreck. And, given that the 30-year-old is healthy and arguably in the best place he’s ever been in his career, he’s definitely one of the top contenders to finally get his hands on the Harley J. Earl trophy.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Fourth in 2008.
Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. is coming off the best season he’s ever had in the Sprint Cup Series.
He made it all the way to the Championship 4 round. And even though he didn’t win the Sprint Cup title, getting that far was a major achievement.
The biggest thing this year is whether Truex and Furniture Row Racing will be better with their shift from Chevrolet power to Toyota and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Truex has two top-10 finishes at Daytona. And if Joe Gibbs Racing puts on the type of show that many expect it to, don’t be surprised if the 35-year-old is right up there with the rest of the pack.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Sixth in 2010 and eighth in 2015.
Carl Edwards had a decent debut season with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015 after leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2014.
Edwards was the second-highest finisher in the JGR stable, ending up fifth in the final standings behind teammate and Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch.
Edwards has had some decent runs at Daytona in the past, but he’s also gotten caught up in a number of wrecks. If he can avoid wrecks, he could come home with a strong finish—maybe even a win.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Second in 2011.
Brad Keselowski will likely be a man on a mission in 2016, and it all starts with Daytona.
After six wins in 2014, Keselowski had just one win in 2015. And while he made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he was never much of a challenge before being eliminated.
Keselowski has had two top-five finishes in the Daytona 500 in recent years. Given teammate Joey Logano won last year’s Daytona 500, will it be the 32-year-old’s turn this year?
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Third in 2014 and fourth in 2013.
Kurt Busch boldly predicted on television that he’ll win the Daytona 500 on Sunday. And you know what? I think he just might.
The elder Busch brother, 37, is arguably in the best place he’s been in both his professional and personal life right now.
There are no distractions, he’s happy, fit and ready to win a number of races this year, starting with Daytona.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Three runner-up finishes in 2003, 2005, 2008.
With all the past success he’s had in the Sprint Unlimited and the Duel 150s, you’d think by now that Denny Hamlin would have at least one win in the granddaddy of them all, the Daytona 500.
Unfortunately, while he’s excelled in the exhibition or qualifying races, it’s not been the case for the 35-year-old in the Great American Race.
Still, hope springs eternal with every new year and each subsequent Daytona 500, and that is something Hamlin can hope for once again this year.
He’s healed from off-season surgery to correct his torn ACL, and he also has some additional motivation: Hamlin has finished fourth, second and fourth again in three of the last four editions of the Great American Race.
Is it finally Denny’s time on Sunday?
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Second in 2014, fourth in 2012 and 2015.
First the bad news: Clint Bowyer hasn’t won a race since 2012, when he won three races.
But now that he’s out of the defunct Michael Waltrip Racing and in a one-year stopover at HScott Motorsports before he replaces the retiring Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Bowyer would love to make a big splash in his one-off year for HSM.
While some may not consider Bowyer a legitimate threat to do well in Sunday’s race, it’s hard to ignore that HScott gets its cars and motors from Hendrick Motorsports, and it has a significant technical alliance with SHR.
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bowyer finish in the top five in Sunday’s race. And if he gets the right drafting partner and the right push to the front, what better way to snap a three-plus year losing streak with a win in the biggest race in NASCAR?
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Back-to-back fourth-place showings in 2009 and 2010.
This is a very big season for Kasey Kahne, who hopes to rebound from last season’s terrible campaign.
Not only did he fail to win a race for the first time since 2010, he also missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time since 2011.
The 35-year-old has never finished higher than seventh in the Daytona 500, but look for Hendrick Motorsports to have a unified front in Sunday’s race—and that means everybody helps everyone else, including Kahne.
While I don’t see him reaching victory lane, a top five is definitely a possibility for Kahne.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Seventh in 2007 and 2008 and ninth in 2015.
Kyle Larson went from a promising Rookie of the Year award-winning season in 2014 to a very disappointing sophomore season in 2015.
The 23-year-old enters his third full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series still without a first win in NASCAR’s marquee series.
Granted, Larson has a very poor record at DIS thus far: four starts overall (including the July race), and wrecked out in three of them, including both Daytona 500 appearances.
But sooner or later his bad luck has to turn around. Larson could be one of the biggest surprises in the Daytona 500, especially if he’s in contention to win in the last couple of laps—and if teammate Jamie McMurray is right behind him.
I’d say it’s almost inevitable that Larson finally wins his first race in 2016. Winning the Daytona 500 would just be icing on the cake.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: 34th in 2015 (was 38th in 2014).
Chase Elliott has a lot of pressure on him in his rookie season of the Sprint Cup Series.
He’s the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, is replacing Jeff Gordon in the iconic No. 24, and is racing for one of the best organizations in the sport, Hendrick Motorsports.
But the 20-year-old made it clear in last week’s qualifying race that he’s not going to let the pressure get to him. That’s why he’ll start Sunday’s Daytona 500 from the pole.
Elliott continues a recent tradition that saw Austin Dillon earn the pole in his first Daytona 500 in the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet.
Which leaves us to the biggest question of all: If Elliott can start from the front, can he finish up front as well?
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: This is his first career appearance.
Greg Biffle kicks off his 14th full-time season as one of the longest-serving drivers still without a Daytona 500 win.
Sure, he won at Daytona in the summer race in his rookie season in 2003. But when it comes to NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the 46-year-old has struggled more often than not.
This could be Biffle’s last good chance to win the 500 in his career.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Third in 2010 and 2012, sixth in 2013.
Could Danica Patrick’s first career Sprint Cup win come Sunday? Believe it or not, it’s definitely possible.
The 33-year-old has shown steady improvement as a plate racer, although her last two 500s have not turned out the way she’d have liked.
She was caught up in a big wreck and finished 40th in 2014 and fell back in the closing laps of last year’s race to finish 21st in the extended green-white-checkered 203-lap event.
Still, if she gets a good position in the draft in the closing laps and can avoid the typical Daytona chaos and calamity, Patrick could find herself in the right place at the right time to be pushed toward the front.
From there, the race outcome would be in her hands.
Best Daytona 500 finish to date: Eighth in 2013 (started from the pole).