Daytona 500 2014: Dark Horse Contenders to Win It All

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIFebruary 20, 2014

Jamie McMurray (1) drives through Turn 4 during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

A practice run for the Daytona 500 ended in a heap of metal and flames on Wednesday as seven cars piled up around the race track.

Tony DiZinno was there in Florida to see the action unfold, as he described on NBC Motorsports Talk.

Contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, who incidentally were the two that collided in Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited and caused a major crash in that race, triggered today’s one as well.

Paul Menard was spun up into the outside retaining wall, collected by rookies Parker Kligerman and Ryan Truex, with Dave Blaney in behind it. Kligerman’s car was sent up on top of Menard’s, and then went onto its roof after being hit by Truex. Trevor Bayne was also involved to round out the seven-car incident, but sustained the least amount of damage.

So that means there will be plenty of replacement cars on the track for the main event on Saturday, which also signifies the start of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While the racing world might be caught up in the war of words between Richard Petty and Danica Patrick, that should all take a backseat this weekend.

You never know what you're going to get in a Daytona 500, and, with so many backup cars on the track, it will be interesting to see how all of the drama unfolds. Here's a look at three drivers who could sneak their way into victory lane on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FOX) in the main event.

Jamie McMurray, No. 1

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NASCAR veteran Jamie McMurray has already played the role of spoiler before, can he do it again?

In 2010, McMurray outlasted Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a memorable Daytona 500, when he led for just two laps after over taking Matt Kenseth in the final stages of the race before fending off a late-charging Junior.

The big win propelled McMurray to a career year that also included a victory at the Brickyard 400, but things have been pretty tough for McMurray in the three years since. Near the end of the 2013 season, McMurray finally snapped his 108-race winless streak by finishing first in a restrictor-plate race at Talladega.

Damien Sordelett of the Lynchburg News Advance detailed the changes McMurray and Chip Ganassi Racing made to his crew this offseason.

A new crew chief, car chief, engineer and shock specialist are among the new members tasked with helping McMurray get back to his winning ways after three disappointing seasons following a breakout 2010 campaign.


The major change to McMurray’s team was at crew chief. Keith Rodden, who has served as engineer for Kenny Francis and Kasey Kahne the past two seasons, replaces Kevin “Bono” Manion.

After finishing 15th in the final 2013 point standings, and outside the top 20 the previous two years, McMurray hopes the changes will vault him back into the conversation with NASCAR's elite drivers. Another surprise finish here would certainly help.

David Ragan, No. 34

David Ragan's name isn't one of the first that comes to mind when thinking of winning NASCAR drivers, but there are factors that make him a worthwhile darkhorse. In a recent interview with Mike Brudenell of the Detroit Free Press, Ragan offered his thoughts on the upcoming Daytona 500.

"It’s been a good track for me," Ragan said. "Our speedway program at Front Row is very good. I like plate racing. I want to put myself in contention to win, and I believe we can."

David Caraviello of NASCAR.com pegged Ragan as one of the top darkhorse contenders in this year's Daytona 500 field.

Since moving to Front Row, his record at Talladega has been hard to beat -- over the past two years there, his average finish is 4.5. As with Gilliland, that degree of consistency means something at such an unpredictable track. Ragan doesn't have quite the same recent record at Daytona, but he clearly knows his way around the place, and he's more than capable of pulling a stunner even bigger than the one he delivered last spring.

Ragan won at Daytona in the 2011 Coke Zero 400 and he also won the 2013 Aaron's 499 in Talladega, so be sure to keep an eye on the No. 34 car.

Kyle Larson, No. 42 

McMurray's Chip Ganassi Racing teammate made headlines last year in Daytona for his spectacular crash on the Nationwide circuit but now he's brushing bumpers with the big boys on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Larson is one of the leaders in this star-studded rookie class that also includes drivers like Austin Dillon, Ryan Truex and Parker Kligerman.

There's been a lot of fanfare surrounding Larson, and Jeff Gordon helped stoke the fire when he told Jeff Owens of Sporting News that he wish Hendrick Motorsports had a fifth spot open to offer Larson a spot on the team.

The 21-year-old sounds like he's taking the expectations in stride, per comments he recently made to Owens.

He admits to being a bit giddy before his Cup debut at Charlotte last year, but that feeling quickly faded when the green flag fell. 

“That was probably the only time I was like, ‘Wow, I’m here,’” Larson said. “Other than that, I don’t get too excited about things like that. It’s just not that big of a deal to me. They are just other racecar drivers.”

Larson takes over for departed Juan Pablo Montoya as the No. 2 driver at CGR, and it's a longshot that he starts off his career with a Daytona 500 victory, but you never know in this unpredictable event.


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