Daytona 500 Lineup: Stars in Middle of the Pack Who'll Make Serious Push

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIFebruary 24, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 14:  Driver Brad Keselowski poses during portraits for the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Daytona 500 promises to be exciting as ever, especially with the unprecedented development of a female driver, Danica Patrick, headlining the lineup in pole position.

But it is worth noting that no pole-sitter has won NASCAR's most highly anticipated race since Dale Jarrett in 2000. With so many big names lurking in the middle of the pack, several are bound to make a strong bid to get into victory lane.

Here is a list of several of the strongest candidates to snag the checkered flag despite less than ideal starting positions, followed by the complete lineup.

Brad Keselowski (Starting Position: 15)

The reigning Sprint Cup Series champion will look to get off to a better start than last season in the bid to defend his title.

But Daytona International Speedway was the site of his happenstance rise to prominence, as it turned out. During a red flag in last year's race, Keselowski tweeted a photo from his car, which made him an instant fan favorite.

As he showed from then on, the 28-year-old has plenty of substance from a racing standpoint to go with his social media savvy. He erased any doubt about whether he could get it done in NASCAR's most prominent circuit with last year's title, backing up his Nationwide Series title from 2010.

Once again, the outspoken nature of Keselowski's personality has buzz surrounding him entering the race. This is because of the massive changes he'd like to see to the sport, which he described in detail to USA TODAY reporter Nate Ryan.

Don't be surprised if he is leading headlines for his performance on the track on Sunday, though.

Keselowski may be starting back in the teens and drawing the ire of officials (h/t Detroit Free Press), but, as usual, he still has to be considered a heavy favorite to take the checkered flag.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Starting Position: 19)

The son of the legendary Intimidator has never quite lived up to the immense hype that's surrounded him, but Junior has had an exceptional career overall.

What leaves his resume truly incomplete is the lack of a Sprint Cup title, and he already has a 2004 Daytona 500 victory to his credit. He nearly won a second one in 2012, finishing runner-up to Matt Kenseth.

Inconsistency has marred the back half of Earnhardt's career, but this past season was a bit of a different story. Although he finished 12th in the points last season and only won one race, it's still worth pointing out that he registered a career-best average finish of 10.3.

Nearly averaging a top 10 every time out is a pretty clear indicator of how well Earnhardt was performing each weekend.

This starting spot actually marks the worst of Earnhardt's 12 previous runs at Daytona, which would seem to indicate that he has no chance of emerging with a victory. But he did finish the final day of practice with the fastest car on the track (h/t ESPN via AP).

Earnhardt is hardly a junior anymore, as he has the proper combination of plentiful experience and familiarity with the track to make a big run.

Joey Logano (Starting Position: 21)

As a new Penske Racing teammate of Keselowski and an extremely hard worker, it's likely that Logano is disappointed in where he is beginning this race. What is encouraging, though, is his ninth-place showing at Daytona last year—and he even led two laps.

The 2009 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year figures to be a huge factor in NASCAR for years to come, but since his first full season, he has only two wins in 144 starts.

That would make a Sunday triumph somewhat shocking, but not impossible. Logano is just 22 years old and capable of flashing his limitless potential at any time. If he truly is the next big thing, he will eventually prove it on the big stage.

He may be young, but he does have four full NASCAR campaigns under his belt and now has the defending Driver's Champion as another mentor.

For bursting onto the scene at such a young age, Logano has had to endure incredulous hype and expectations. Those shouldn't be as burdensome considering where he is in the lineup, which should allow him to go for broke.

Such a strategy could backfire, but a come-from-behind victory at the Daytona 500 would easily quiet any and all critics questioning Logano's merits as a driver.

Complete Daytona 500 Lineup

Pos. Driver Pos. Driver
1 Danica Patrick 2 Jeff Gordon
3 Kevin Harvick 4 Kyle Busch
5 Greg Biffle 6 Kasey Kahne
7 Juan Pablo Montoya 8 Austin Dillon
9 Jimmie Johnson 10 Clint Bowyer
11 Kurt Busch 12 Matt Kenseth
13 Tony Stewart 14 Mark Martin
15 Brad Keselowski 16 Paul Menard
17 Casey Mears 18 Jeff Burton
19 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 20 Jamie McMurray
21 Joey Logano 22 David Ragan
23 Bobby Labonte 24 Marcos Ambrose
25 David Gilliland 26 Aric Almirola
27 Joe Nemechek 28 Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
29 Michael Waltrip 30 Dave Blaney
31 Scott Speed 32 Josh Wise
33 Trevor Bayne 34 Ryan Newman
35 Denny Hamlin 36 Carl Edwards
37 Martin Truex Jr. 38 Michael McDowell
39 Terry Labonte 40 Regan Smith
41 J.J. Yeley 42 David Reutimann
43 Travis Kvapil    

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