Daytona 500 2012: 12 Drivers with an Actual Shot at Victory Lane

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IJanuary 19, 2012

Daytona 500 2012: 12 Drivers with an Actual Shot at Victory Lane

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    Predicting who will hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy at the conclusion of the Daytona 500 is a somewhat futile guessing game because of the inevitable unpredictability that comes into play most every year.

    Wild-card drivers who are not on the Victory Lane radar often spoil the show for the drivers who are predicted to dominate the high banks and expected to win the biggest race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

    There are factors that, when blended together, give you a gambler's chance to pick the candidate who will win the "Great American Race."

    The final package NASCAR determines for the Daytona 500 will be integrated with all the data the teams have gathered in testing during the preseason to produce a highly-competitive field of cars, with any one of them potentially taking the checkered flag.

    It won't be known exactly how races will play out until the cars hit the track during Speedweeks. 

    NASCAR is trying to eliminate the two-car tandem racing that fans, for the most part, dislike by changing the rules package.

    The drivers know that two cars in tandem are faster and even if they do run in packs during the 500, it may be a pair that dances together that will dive to the front and the lead car will be the victor.

    This slideshow is in no particular order. The drivers have been picked to win for a variety of reasons, some of which may be questioned.

    Futile as this kind of predicting can be, these drivers may just be the hot picks who actually have a shot at winning the Daytona 500.

1. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, was a favorite in the 2011 season to capture his fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup title, but he slipped to eighth place in points at year's end.

    Gordon has won at Daytona six times out of his 85 career wins.

    This Hendrick Motorsports driver has a new partner to work with at Daytona in the form of Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet.

    The two worked well together during the recent testing, posting some of the fastest speeds.

    Testing is no guarantee of performance under race conditions, but it did demonstrate how we might expect Gordon and Kahne to hook up as the checkered flag is about to wave.

    Gordon's years in the sport are winding down, and winning a fifth title is priority one. He and his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, have bonded well after one season together.

    Look for Gordon to kick off the 2012 season with a strong performance at Daytona and quite possibly hoisting the coveted Harley J. Earl Trophy.

2. Denny Hamlin

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    Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx team out of Joe Gibbs Racing stumbled in the 2011 season, but despite engine failures, accidents and less than stellar performances, he finished ninth in the points.

    Hamlin seemed unable to shake the loss of the 2010 Cup title when he finished second to Jimmie Johnson. It sometimes looked like he was lacking focus in 2011.

    This year he took a timeout from all things racing and even moved to Arizona for several months to play golf and relax after the end of the season.

    Hamlin is back at work now with a new crew chief, Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to a third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2011 by taking chances.

    Grubb made bold calls that played a major part in Stewart winning five of the 10 Chase races. Look for him to continue making tough calls for Hamlin, if he thinks it will get him to Victory Lane.

    Hamlin seems to be rejuvenated and ready to tackle the new season. Hamlin has never won at Daytona and that record may fall come February.

    Look for Hamlin to work with Kyle Busch, his teammate, when he needs to go to the front and count on Joey Logano, the third JGR driver, to work with him as well to gain advantage.

    Both Hamlin and Grubb have something to prove and it may start in the Daytona 500. If the TRD engines remain healthy, the cars out of Joe Gibbs Racing should be strong on the high banks.

3. Brad Keselowski

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    Brad Keselowski has never had a top-10 finish at Daytona, but he has only been full time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for two seasons with Penske Racing.

    He certainly wasn't pegged to move from well in the double digits of the point standings with zero wins to make the Chase, win three races and finish fifth in the points for 2011.

    His chemistry with crew chief Paul Wolfe is powerful. His ride is legendary in the Penske Blue Deuce and Keselowski is driven to race hard and go for the win.

    Now as lead driver at Penske Racing, Keselowski is working with his new teammate, A.J. Allmendinger who now wheels Kurt Busch's former ride, the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. 

    Allmendinger is in the Penske Racing learning curve, but he will be there to push his teammate in the inevitable two-car tandem that will be part of the Daytona 500.

    Look for Keselowski to continue to surprise with his dogged determination to run at the front and contend for race wins. He may just get his first Daytona 500 top-10 finish and it may be position one.

4. Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson, five-time NASCAR Cup champion, missed getting his sixth consecutive title in 2011 and ended the season sixth in the point standings.

    The driver of the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports has one Daytona 500 win and a total of six superspeedway wins.

    Johnson and his team were not up to their usual performance last season and they made some mistakes that cost them a shot at the title.

    After reflecting on the 2011 season, Johnson said, "This winter has been really good for me to really dive down and understand the areas where I feel like I can do a better job and be a better member of the 48 team."

    He added, " So I know I'm stronger and better today than I was leaving Homestead, so I'm looking forward to 2012."

    During the recent test session at Daytona, Johnson had a very fast car and because it was his Daytona 500 car, he was under team orders, via a vacationing Chad Knaus, not to participate in the pack testing.

    That just may be a key indicator that he is ready to go for the win in the Daytona 500 and he may have the car to do it even if Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't push him across the finish line.

    Quotes courtesy of official NASCAR press release.

5. Kyle Busch

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    Kyle Busch is back to begin a new season and prove he still has as much fire in his belly to win as ever, with focus on winning a Cup title in 2012.

    Though he must rein in his personality and judgment calls, not run NCWTS races even in his own equipment, it likely will make him even more determined to win races.

    He knows misbehavior this year could cost him the sponsorship of M&M's on his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after his costly judgment call at Texas last season.

    Busch has one win at Daytona in the July race. During the January test session at the track, Busch had one of the fastest cars.

    Look for Busch to retain his "in your face" attitude, but it will be by way of showing he is a force to deal with on the track. He will be a true threat to win races and bring Joe Gibbs Racing a championship.

6. Carl Edwards

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    Carl Edwards technically tied Tony Stewart in points for the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup title, but Stewart won by virtue of his five Chase wins.

    Edwards has 19 career wins in the Cup series and none of them have come at Daytona.

    As lead driver in the No. 99 for Roush Fenway Racing, it is very important for him to kick off this year in big style with a win. He had only one win in 2011 and he needs to better those stats this season.

    During the test session at Daytona, Edwards wasn't consistently fast, but claimed he and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, were trying a lot of different things.

    Edwards not only hasn't won at Daytona, but he has failed to win a superspeedway race.

    The 54th running of the Daytona 500 will either be his biggest win ever or he may not even be a contender to win.

    This RFR driver has forfeited his runs in the Nationwide series to focus on winning a Cup title. What better way to rebound from runner-up in 2011 than to come out of the gate strong in 2012 at Daytona.

7. Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick finished the 2011 season third in the point standings after winning four races during the year.

    He is the lead driver at Richard Childress Racing with his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet. RCR is back down to three teams again after fielding four in 2011.

    Harvick is good on the high-banked tri-oval tracks. At Daytona, he has two wins and nine top-10 finishes.

    This driver doesn't usually dominate races, but as the race winds down he suddenly makes a run to the front.

    Harvick is a leading candidate to do just that at the upcoming Daytona 500 and if he needs a push, it could come from teammates Jeff Burton or Paul Menard.

8. Kurt Busch

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    Kurt Busch's emotional explosions, triggered by pressure and unhappiness at Penske Racing, ended his stint with a premier team owner and a first-class ride.

    The fun factor was gone for Busch at Penske, so now he claims he is exactly where he wants to be at this point in his career.

    He is with Phoenix Racing, a low-budget, small operation reminiscent of old-school teams. Busch will piloting the No. 51 Chevrolet with Hendrick chassis, engines and technical support.

    Busch ran some of the fastest laps at the recent test sessions at Daytona International Speedway. He has a tandem-draft partner with Regan Smith in the Furniture Row Chevrolet.

    Busch certainly didn't leave his driving ability behind at Penske Racing. He is as good as he ever was and the 2004 Cup series champion has 24 career wins.

    Though Busch does not have a win at Daytona, do not be surprised to see him run strong at the end of the race in a two-car hookup.

    This driver has much to prove personally and professionally in 2012. Busch is out to show he really isn't the devil, that he is a good guy who can attract sponsors and win races.

    Busch could likely rattle a lot of cages with his underdog team if he sails to victory at the upcoming Daytona 500. He certainly can't be counted out.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. likes Daytona and has two wins there, one of which is the 2004 Daytona 500. The driver would like nothing more than to end his 129-race winless streak with the upcoming premier race of the season.

    Earnhardt had a strong car during the recent testing at Daytona. He is happy to be back in a race car and showed he was relaxed and confident during the three days of constant changes to the cars.

    Though he understands NASCAR is trying to keep the fans happy by breaking up the two-car tandem draft, he made it very clear that regardless of how the race plays out, the winner will have a dance partner at the finish line.

    Earnhardt has a terrific dance partner with his new teammate, Kasey Kahne. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet could also work with the other Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

    The HMS cars may be the best cars in the Daytona 500 and Junior looks to better his performance in 2012, even though he finished seventh in the point standings for 2011.

    A win by Earnhardt at Daytona is just what NASCAR needs to start off the season. Though he doesn't feel pressure to win, he wants that Harley J. Earl Trophy and may well be the one who gets it.

10. Martin Truex Jr.

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    Martin Truex Jr. has become the lead dog at Michael Waltrip Racing as driver of the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota.

    Though Truex only has one career Cup win, it was evident toward the end of the 2011 season that his team was becoming a contender for wins.

    Truex is certainly not a favorite to win the upcoming Daytona 500, but he could well be one of those surprise drivers that makes a surge to the front when the checkered flag waves.

    The 56 car was one of the faster cars during the testing and with Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin to work with him in the two-car dance, he could well get the push that counts on the final lap.

11. Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart was on fire during the 2011 Chase, winning half of the 10 races for the title. Stewart now has his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title and 44 career wins.

    The winning of the Daytona 500 has eluded "Smoke," though he does have three wins at the track for the July race.

    Stewart, the owner/driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, is still in high spirits and ready to race. He even enjoyed testing, something he usually tries to avoid.

    He is really confident with the team he has put together with Steve Addington as his crew chief and his good friend, Greg Zipadelli, as competition director.

    Stewart will be driving a potent Hendrick Motorsports powered car at Daytona that is guaranteed to be fast for the big race.

    He also has two highly reliable dance partners, should they be needed for the two-car tandem racing that appears to be mandatory at Daytona.

    Teammates Ryan Newman and Danica Patrick are drivers Stewart can trust as pushers. During the Daytona testing he worked primarily with Patrick and they worked well together.

    Look for Stewart to be a serious contender to win the 54th running of the Daytona 500.

12. Danica Patrick

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    Danica Patrick begins her 10-race debut as a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the Daytona 500.

    She is driving the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick seemed to adapt to her Cup car quite easily during the testing sessions at Daytona.

    Just as Trevor Bayne stunned the NASCAR world with his winning of the Daytona 500 last year, Patrick could easily be the shocking winner this year.

    She is able to run well in pack racing where the cars were running three-wide. Certainly, she was capable of being pushed or doing the pushing in two-car pairings with current Cup champion, Tony Stewart.

    Daytona will be the easiest track for her to run with a Cup car this season during her partial schedule.

    As long as her honey badger attitude works for her and she doesn't get overly aggressive, she may well be a force to deal with in the final laps of the Daytona 500.