Daytona 500: Biggest Names to Watch for in NASCAR's Marquee Event

Ethan Grant@DowntownEGAnalyst IFebruary 21, 2013

Feb 17, 2013; Daytona Beach, FL, USA; Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) during qualifying for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.  Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, the winners in victory lane at the Daytona 500 range from Richard Petty to Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison—all the way down to Dale Earnhardt.

This year, 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson are likely the two biggest names surrounding the Great American Race, but Danica Patrick has usurped most of that media coverage with her ground-breaking qualifying lap to earn the pole position.

NASCAR might be top heavy in marketing, but it certainly isn't devoid of names that will be vying for the 55th Daytona 500 championship. Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also be racing on Sunday, and each has won the classic race before in their careers.

That being said, Patrick clearly has a chance to steal the biggest spotlight at Daytona International Speedway. From the first-ever pole win by a female driver to her relationship with fellow rookie driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the plotlines have started to thicken as the drivers make their way through duels and into their final positioning for Sunday afternoon.

Here's a look at some of the names you'll want to keep an eye on before, during and after the race—for more reasons than one.

Matt Kenseth

After causing the first wreck at this year's first practice (via Jeff Gluck of USA Today), Kenseth created a little bit of a stir by forcing drivers and NASCAR officials to acknowledge some of the difficulty these stars will have adjusting to their new Gen-6 cars.  

Not only did Kenseth get the wreckage started off in this year's chase to the 2013 Sprint Cup, but he's also the defending champion of this event. He also won the Daytona 500 in 2008 and has a chance to become just the fourth driver to crack the three-win mark in the 55-year history of the event.

In the process, he can also be just the fourth driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s and the first since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95. Needless to say, there's a big chunk of history and greatness that would come with Kenseth's third win here.

After finishing seventh in the 2012 Sprint Cup, Kenseth has some work to do to catch up to big names like Patrick and Johnson. He wasted a big win last year, but there's no doubt he's looking for a re-do of sorts to get 2013 started on the right foot.

Jimmie Johnson

Surprisingly, Johnson finished third in the 2012 Cup race.

Surprise in the sense that he is a five-time winner, but also in looking at the stats from his races in 2012. According to ESPN, Johnson finished first in a number of categories that should have netted him a higher finish, but his penchant for struggling to cross the white stripe with a checkered flag flowing hurt him in the long run:

Five-Time was No. 1 in laps led (1,744), times led (78), races led (26), Top 5s (18), Top 10s (24) and driver rating (109.5). He also tied for the top spot in victories (5) and poles (4). So how in the world did Johnson not win the title? He had six DNFs, the most of any driver in the Top 20 in the standings.

The No. 48 Chevy car is one of the most recognizable on the entire NASCAR circuit, and his relationship with other companies that market the brand and his current fans make him a must-watch attraction at Daytona.

Throw in his penchant for winning (2006 Daytona champion), and all bets are off. Look for JJ to have a big day and potentially be in the Top 5 come crunch time down the stretch.

Danica Patrick

Not only are the odds at Daytona not in her favor because a woman has never won the event, but they also don't bode well based on past performers who start in the pole position, as noted by ESPN's Stats & Info: 

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Danica Patrick is on the pole for the Daytona 500, but the avg finish for the last 10 Daytona 500 polesitters is 19th.

That stat is troubling enough, but another one from ESPN may put her title chances in even further jeopardy:

The pole-sitter has been part of a wreck in each of the last four races held at Daytona, the longest active Cup streak at any track. At the Daytona 500 specifically, wrecks have been most prevalent toward the end of the race.

However, after breaking ground in virtually all other aspects of the sport, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Patrick wind up hoisting the trophy after her 500 miles are in the books.

While she certainly has gained more notoriety for her commercials and dating life than her accomplishments on the race track, there's a good chance that could all change on Sunday. Patrick has a fast car, has already proved she can hang with the big boys by winning the pole and is now gunning at the ultimate prize—a Daytona 500 win.

Without a doubt, she'll be the most analyzed and scrutinized driver. We'll see how she responds to both media pressure and pressure to live up to this high billing with the No. 1 start position in the race.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

It's hard to have big names in a title and not mention No. 88, the 2004 winner and eighth-place finisher last week at NASCAR's test run—the Sprint Unlimited.

After suffering engine failure on just Lap 11 of his most recent practice run (via FOX Sports), the odds will somewhat be stacked against the man who has 26 total races under his belt at this venue. Still, Junior has been improving after a rough stretch in his career, and ended up finishing 12th in the 2012 Cup standings.

With a No. 19 start (unofficial) in this year's starting grid, he'll have some work to do to catch the current leaders. However, we've learned over the years that he's always dangerous in a big race like this, and there's a good chance he makes a sneaky push into our TV screens at some point on Sunday.


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