The 2011 Speedweeks at Daytona are now well under way. Kurt Busch won the Budweiser Shootout, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon took the top two spots in qualifying and will lead the field to the green flag.
The rest of the field will be set on Thursday, with the running of the Gatorade Dual 150's. Then, it is on to Sunday, with the running of the Daytona 500.
As the biggest race is now less than a week away and there has already been plenty of on track excitement, it's time to take a look at the 15 drivers—who may not be considered favorites—that could easily play the role of spoiler and end up in victory lane.
First and foremost, we should probably single out who the favorites are. Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion would certainly qualify as one of the favorites.
Along with Johnson, I would say that his teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., especially with him winning the pole, are also among the favorites.
Defending 500 champion Jamie McMurray has to be on the short list of favorites and a lot of people are looking at Kevin Harvick as a prime candidate to win his second Daytona 500.
So, with those five drivers off the board, here are the 15 drivers that really have a chance to make some noise.
If nothing else, Mark Martin would certainly have to be considered the sentimental favorite. Entering his final season driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Martin may also be facing his last best chance to win the Daytona 500, a win that has thus far eluded him in his career.
Martin has been strong through the early days of Speedweeks. He led both of the first two practices and put down the eighth-fastest lap in qualifying. He had moved up to sixth in the Bud Shootout before an incident with Kyle Busch put an end to his race.
He has also had some success in the past at Daytona. No one can ever forget the epic last lap duel that he had with Kevin Harvick in the 2007 Daytona 500. In that event, Martin was leading when they took the white flag and after a drag race down the back stretch, Martin lost by a nose to Harvick.
He is also the defending pole sitter for this event, so there is no denying that Martin knows his way around this track. If the stars align properly and the racing Gods are in a mood to make for a feel-good story, this will be the year that Martin finally wins the Daytona 500.
Greg Biffle was a half of a lap away from winning the 2010 Daytona 500. After pushing eventual winner, Jamie McMurray to the lead on the final restart, Biffle actually took the lead away from him in turn two of the final lap. He was unable to hang on and was relegated to a third place finish.
Biffle scored his first career win at Daytona, back in 2003, but has yet to find victory lane on a restrictor-plate race track since.
He scored a fifth place finish in the Bud Shootout and showed that he was capable of pushing other cars toward the front of the field. Biffle also comes in riding some momentum from last season.
As a team, Roush Racing really turned a corner midway through the 2010 season and that effort was lead by Biffle as he broke a long winless streak for the organization when he won at Pocono—and then a few weeks later at Kansas.
Jeff Burton is another seasoned veteran that is still looking for his first Daytona 500 win. For his career, Burton has been able to score a win at the historic track. He won the Pepsi 400 back in 2000.
Burton has already shown very strong during the 2011 Speedweeks. He finished eighth in the Bud Shootout, but he was the dominant car for that event. Of the 75 laps run in that race, Burton led 32 of them.
Burton is coming off a season in which he qualified for the Chase—the fourth time in five seasons that he accomplished this feat.
For the second straight year he failed to record a win, but he came close on numerous occasions. Multiple times, he had the car to beat, but whether for a blown tire or an untimely caution, for one reason or another, Burton couldn't find victory lane.
That could change this weekend. He is a widely-respected driver that most other drivers in the field would be happy to draft with. The final telling sign that Burton is a real threat was his qualifying effort. Though his starting position won't be determined until the Gatorade Duals have been run, Burton put down the sixth-fastest speed during time trials.
Any time Burton can lay down one of the top qualifying speeds, you know that he has a car capable of winning.
After winning the Bud Shootout, Kurt Busch should be considered one of the favorites to win the Great American Race. But, he still doesn't get the credit he deserves when it comes to restrictor-plate races.
Until this past weekend, Busch had never won a race at Daytona, but he has been close. In 20 career starts at Daytona, Busch has scored nine top fives. As it relates to his Daytona 500 history, Busch is most remembered for his role in pushing Ryan Newman to victory in the race back in 2008, resulting in a runner-up finish for himself.
Busch also seems to avoid trouble at Daytona. In his last seven starts at the track, Busch has completed every lap run and we all know that you can't win the race if you aren't on the track.
Matt Kenseth is a driver that seems to be flying underneath everyone's radar. His last win came in the second race of the 2009 season, one week after he captured the Daytona 500 in a rain-shortened affair.
Last year was a quiet season for Kenseth. He scored just 15 top-10 finishes, but was still able to qualify for the Chase and with some good late-season runs, he finished fifth in the standings.
Kenseth's Daytona career has been feast or famine. In 22 starts he has 10 top-10 finishes, but also has seven finishes outside the top 20. The recent past has found much more success than disappointment. His last five trips to the super speedway have produced four top-10's with his worst finish being 15th.
With Kenseth's knack to just hang around and still be running at the end of races, look for him to make some noise and be in contention to win his second career Daytona 500.
Clint Bowyer is coming off his best statistical season. Though he only finished 10th in the point standings, he set new career-highs across the board. He won multiple races for the first time in his career and scored a new personal best of 18 top-10 finishes.
He also really made a name for himself on the restrictor-plate tracks. In four starts last season, using a restrictor plate, Bowyer scored three top-10's, one of which was a win.
Daytona has been a very good track for Bowyer. In 10 starts, he has scored six top-10 finishes and only twice was he outside the top 20. Of 1,773 laps run at Daytona in Bowyer's 10 starts, he has completed all but one of them.
Richard Childress Racing cars have been fast all week and Bowyer's was no exception. He posted the fifth-fastest time during time trials and it would surprise very few people to see Bowyer end up in victory lane.
Joey Logano is entering his third full season in Sprint Cup competition and as last season came to a close, he started to show vast improvement. In his last nine races of 2010, Logano scored six top-10 finishes and had just one finish outside the top 20.
Daytona has not been kind to the driver of the Home Depot Toyota. In four starts, Logano has failed to record a top 10, and his best finish is just a 19th.
While his time trial effort was back in the pack, he showed some strength in the Bud Shootout before he was involved in the big wreck.
If momentum is a real thing, Logano is certainly riding a wave of it from the strong runs he was having at the end of last year and that could easily translate into the biggest win of his career.
Juan Montoya is long overdue to win a race on an oval.
What better place to get that win than at Daytona, in the season opening Daytona 500?
Montoya has proven to be quite proficient while running restrictor-plate races. In 2010, he scored three top-10's in the four races, including a pair of third-place runs.
For his career at Daytona, Montoya has started eight events and has posted two top-10's, but they have both come over the course of the last three races run there. While his record is better at Talladega, the other restrictor-plate track, Montoya is still nothing short of confident.
And don't forget, he is also the teammate to the defending champion of this event. There is nothing more that Montoya would like than to keep the trophy in the same race shop.
Martin Truex is entering his second year driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, piloting the NAPA Auto Parts Toyota. Last season was considered a disappointment for Truex, as he managed just seven top-10 finishes and could only muster a 22nd place finish in the standings.
Two of those top-10 finishes came at restrictor-plate tracks a season ago and one of those was in the Daytona 500, where he finished sixth.
Daytona has not been one of Truex's better tracks over the course of his career.
He has posted just one top-10 in 11 starts, but at a track where anything can happen, a driver with the talent of Truex is sure to find his way to the front sooner or later.
Brian Vickers may be the driver that is the most-under people's radar. He is coming off a 2010 season that was cut short by blood clots, which some thought may end his career.
Vickers was able to run in last year's Daytona 50, and posted a respectable 15th-place finish; on the whole, restrictor-plate racing has been hit-or-miss for Vickers.
He scored his first career win at Talladega. In total, Vickers has competed in 24 restrictor-plate races. He has posted eight top-10 finishes, but has also had 10 finishes of 25th or worse.
While there is some question as to how aggressive Vickers will be in his first race back, what an amazing story it would be if he could find a way to defy the odds and actually win the biggest race of the season.
Not only could Paul Menard be one of the surprise drivers of the Daytona 500, he has the potential to be the surprise driver of the entire 2011 season. Menard is coming off a career-best season and now moves over to Richard Childress Racing, one of the top teams in the series.
While Menard has failed to record a top-10 in his seven career starts at Daytona, he hasn't run terribly either. Six of the seven races have resulted in top 25's and he even scored his only career pole at Daytona.
The move to RCR instantly upgrades Menard, as he now moves to a team that is coming off a great season that saw them put all three of their teams into the Chase. Just like the rest of his teammates, Menard was very fast in time trials, as he put down the fourth-fastest lap during qualifying.
Brad Keselowski enters the 2011 season—his second full-time effort—as the new driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. He takes over the car from Kurt Busch and that in itself can only add to Keselowski's development.
Keselowski has only made three starts at Daytona in Sprint Cup competition and the track has not treated him with much kindness. His best finish is only 24th. The other restrictor-plate track, Talladega, has however been very kind to the defending Nationwide Series champion.
In four starts at Talladega, Keselowski has three top-10 finishes, including his only career Sprint Cup win. Keselowski has shown in very limited opportunities that he can handle the restrictor-plate racing and now behind the wheel of one of the top cars in the series, he has a real chance to shine and erase all the negativity of his past Daytona performances.
A.J. Allmendinger is coming off his best season in Sprint Cup competition. He finished 19th in the point standings, with career bests of eight top-10's and two top-fives.
Now, in 2011, Allmendinger is the top driver for a now downsized Richard Petty Motorsports. On the whole, Daytona has not been kind to Allmendinger, but it is the site of his career best finish. Two seasons ago, Allmendinger started his season off with a third-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Aside from that finish, Allmendinger's next best finish at Daytona is 17th, in five starts. The other three finishes are all outside the top 30. But, as the new face of RPM, big things are expected from Allmendinger this season and a good way to start would be with a strong showing in the biggest race of the year.
After a breakout season in 2008, David Ragan's career has seemingly stalled. He scored 14 top-10's in 2008, but has scored just a total of five since. However, some of his best runs have been at the restrictor-plate race tracks.
In 16 starts on restrictor-plate tracks, Ragan has scored six top-10 finishes and only three of them have been outside the top 20. He also scored his first of two Nationwide Series victories on a restrictor-plate track, Talladega, in 2009.
While the last couple of years haven't gone the way we expected for Ragan, the bigger the track, the better he runs.
At Daytona, a guy like Ragan could really turn his career around with one big performance.
Last but certainly not least on the list, is Bill Elliott. Awesome Bill finds himself in the No. 09 car for James Finch for the Daytona 500 and while that may not be the car that too many people expect to see in victory lane, both Elliott and the No. 09 car have had a lot of success on restrictor-plate tracks.
For his career, Elliott has won four times at Daytona, including twice in the Daytona 500. The car he is in has also found some recent successes on the restrictor-plate tracks.
While it has failed to make the Daytona 500 the previous two seasons, it has found victory lane at Talladega with Brad Keselowski. Over the last six restrictor-plate races that the No. 09 car has qualified for, it has finished inside the top 20 four times, with a variety of different drivers.
Elliott is already locked into the 500 and doesn't have to worry about racing his way in through the Gatorade Duals, as he posted the fastest qualifying time of all of the go, or go-homers.
Don't be surprised to see Elliott in a place he is very familiar with, up front at Daytona.