NASCAR at Daytona 2017: Top Sleepers to Watch in Great American Race

Brian Marron@@brianmarron398Featured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, leads Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's 75 Toyota, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Familiar names like past winners Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano will litter the 2017 Daytona 500 field, but several afterthoughts could become major players in the Great American Race.

This race has seen sleepers break into the winner's circle in recent seasons. Trevor Bayne shocked the world in 2011 when he won the Daytona 500, and Joey Logano marked his arrival among the sport's perennial contenders with his 2015 victory.

Let's take a look at who could follow a similar pattern next weekend. The race's schedule can be seen below, and the entry list can be found at NASCAR.com.

2017 Daytona 500 Schedule
DateLocationStart Time (ET)NetworkLive Stream
Sunday, Feb. 26Daytona International Speedway, Daytona, Florida2 p.m.FoxFox Sports Go
NASCAR.com

Austin Dillon

As a 26-year-old racer looking to break through and establish himself as a serious championship threat, Austin Dillon could take a major step in that direction in Daytona.

Dillon has yet to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in his professional career, but he has shown significant signs of that changing in the near future. After combining for two top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in his first five years on the circuit, Dillon improved to four top-five finishes and 13 top-10 finishes last season.

There is also a little bit of extra motivation for Dillon. Richard Childress Racing has not won in the last 327 starts, and Dillon is hoping to quickly end his team's misfortunes, per Fox Sports' Joe Menzer.

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"It sucks. No one likes to go winless," said Dillon. "We want to wipe that out as soon as possible."

Dillon will also want to best his little brother, Ty, as its the first time the two will compete in the same series, via NASCAR:

Dillon posted promising results in his short time racing at Daytona. In seven starts at this race track, Dillon has one top-five result while ending up in the top 10 five times. This gives him the highest average finish position, 11.7, of any active driver in the Monster series.

If there is a first-time winner this year, look for Dillon to have the best shot in this field.

Clint Bowyer

Unlike Dillon, Clint Bowyer is an established veteran and a stalwart on the series for years. Yet he has yet to win the big one at Daytona despite challenging for the crown in the past.

In 22 races at this racetrack, Bowyer posted three top-five results and 11 top-10 finishes. He has consistently found himself near the top of the leaderboard in this race, but has the 37-year-old's window of opportunity passed?

Bowyer has not won a race since 2012, and he produced one of the worst seasons of his career last year. He only mustered three top-10 finishes, which was his lowest total since he joined the Monster series full time in 2006. It was also the only time he failed to finish in the top five of a race.

Yet the Kansas native could benefit from a fresh start in 2017. Daytona will be his first race as a member of Stewart-Haas Racing, as he will take over the No. 14 car from the retired Tony Stewart. Bowyer seems set on using the new opportunity as a springboard for Daytona, per the team's website.

I'm here to win this Daytona 500. I can't wait. I have a new opportunity with a new race team. It's a new everything for me so I'm going down there to work hard in every practice session and get myself prepared to win this baby. I'm hungry and I want to go out there and get established right off the bat as a frontrunner with our team. And I think, ‘Hey, I think I can win the Daytona 500.' I've come close many times.

Bowyer is the one to watch regarding feel-good stories at this version of the Great American Race. He has proved he can contend at this track during his career, and the re-energized racer could net his evasive Daytona win.

Kurt Busch

Despite being another driver in the same age bracket as Bowyer, Kurt Busch has yet to show any real signs of slowing down.

The 38-year-old is coming off of two straight seasons with over 20 top-10 finishes in the Monster series, including a combined 19 top-five results and three victories. Busch has one of the most illustrious careers of any active driver, but Daytona has not been the most kind to him.

He has slammed on the door as hard as possible during his career, but Busch still has no wins on this track. In 31 races, Busch has finished in the top five 12 times and the top 10 16 times, which is an astounding amount of finishes near the top of the leaderboard without a victory.

Busch certainly understands that Daytona is one major feather missing from his cap, as he explained per Motorsport.com's Lee Spencer.

"The Daytona 500, if I win it this year, I just might almost pull a Carl Edwards and walk away," Kurt Busch said with a smile. "No, no, no. The Daytona 500 is one of the most prestigious wins and it is on the top of my list right now.

"There's Daytona. There's Indianapolis. There's Darlington, Charlotte, Bristol. I've got a couple of those but Daytona, I've yet to win there."

It is pretty difficult to perform so well at a track and come so close as many times as Busch without winning at least once. There should be faith in him to continue his productive racing at Daytona next weekend, and with him still competing with the sport's best, Busch may finally break through this year.

All statistics are courtesy of Racing-Reference.