Daytona 500 2013: Dark-Horse Contenders for Great American Race

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 20:  Trevor Bayne drives the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The usual cast of characters are considered Daytona 500 favorites. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the big names expected to contend. The one exception is Danica Patrick, who earned the pole position.

With the spotlight shining brightly on those drivers, along with defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski, there's a large group that is being overlooked. So the opportunity is there for another driver to emerge from the shadows and win the season's biggest race.

Let's examine three Daytona hopefuls who are capable of defying the odds and winning Sunday's race. Regardless of who ends up in victory lane, a favorite or a sleeper, it should be another exciting start to a NASCAR season.

Austin Dillon

Last season, Dillon finished third in the Nationwide Series and was named its Rookie of the Year. The 22-year-old North Carolina native was able to keep pace with rising star Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who's also in the 500, and veteran Elliott Sadler all season.

He has limited experience at the top level, however. He's made just two Sprint Cup starts, one in each of the past two seasons, and was never in contention either time. So it will be interesting to see how he handles the increased pressure.

Dillon will start from the No. 8 position after an impressive showing in his Budweiser Duel. He definitely has  a car that's good enough to win the race, but a lot will depend on how he handles a situation unlike anything he's ever faced.

Trevor Bayne

When Bayne broke onto the scene two years ago by winning the Daytona 500, he started 32nd. After switching to a backup car, he will need another come-from-behind performance to win this year. That previous experience should help, though.

While he looked like a star in the making when he took that Daytona checkered flag, in 32 races since he hasn't been able to crack the top five. It's caused his stock to fade a bit. But another win on the grandest stage of them all would provide another boost.

The biggest key for Bayne will be avoiding the wrecks. Starting deep in the field leaves drivers vulnerable to a massive pile-up. If he can keep his car out of harm's way, he should make enough steady progress to be in the mix at the end.

Casey Mears

Mears had his best finish in the Daytona 500 in 2006 when he came in second to Jimmie Johnson. This year's race serves as his best opportunity since then to come out on top. He had a strong qualifying run and backed it up in the first Budweiser Duel.

The versatile driver, who also had a brief IndyCar run, has always been a driver who can contend in races, but has rarely been able to finish the deal. He has 46 top 10s and 12 top fives in his NASCAR career, but just one victory.

Breaking through at an major event like Sunday's race would be a big step. Even though he isn't getting much respect leading up to the race, he's had a strong week and should be able to parlay that into a contending spot.


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