The 55th running of “The Great American Race” is upon us. The Sprint Unlimited is history, the Budweiser Duels are in the books and the lineup for the Daytona 500 is set. All that is left to be determined is which of the 43 starters Sunday will conquer the 2.5 mile beast and hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy at the end of the day. Nine former Daytona 500 champions are looking to win another while 35 others look to capture their first. Rookie Danica Patrick will lead the field to the green flag with 4-time NSCS champion and 3-time 500 winner, Jeff Gordon starting alongside her. After watching all the races and practice sessions throughout Speedweeks, I have chosen ten drivers that I believe have the best shot to take the checkered flag this weekend.
10) – Juan Pablo Montoya
JPM has been very quiet throughout Speedweeks which is undeniably a good thing. He has stayed out of the wrecks for the most part and he hasn’t run into any jet dryers either. The former Indy 500 winner has something to prove in 2013 after an absolutely dismal 2012 and from looking at his recent interviews, he seems very excited about this year and confident in his equipment. Montoya came out of nowhere to finish 3rd in the first Budweiser Duel Thursday and with Hendrick power under the hood of his Target machine, he could be a real threat Sunday. I say keep an eye out for the Colombian because he might just surprise you when he emerges from the 500 mile war with the hardware.
9) – Danica Patrick
Danica has truly impressed a lot of people during Speedweeks so far. The Go-Daddy driver not only won the pole for the 500, but also decided to play it smart in the Duel to ensure the safety of her exceptionally fast race car. The only achilles heel for Patrick could be her lack of experience. She was in this race last year but only ran one lap before being taken out in the Jimmie Johnson accident. One worry for some rookies coming to Daytona is the fact that no one dares to work with a driver that has the yellow stripe across the rear bumper. Danica won’t have to worry about that though as she has the 2008 Daytona 500 winner (Ryan Newman) and the second winningest driver in Daytona history (Tony Stewart) as her teammates. If she can survive the inevitable carnage and make it to the finish, you can bet that her green Chevy SS will be near the front.
8) – Dale Earnhardt Jr
I don’t know why but we haven’t heard a lot from this restrictor plate ace so far this year. He wasn’t a threat for the win in the Unlimited nor was he in the hunt for the win in his respective Budweiser Duel. That puzzles me but at the same time, it would foolish to count out an Earnhardt at Daytona. In 2010 and 2012, Jr was the runner-up in this race and always seems to find his way to the front at the end of these things. He has the power under the hood, the crew behind him and the talent needed to win the Daytona 500. Pending he doesn’t get caught up in the wrecks that are sure to happen, Dale Jr will be a contender and in the hunt for his second Daytona 500 victory.
7) – Jeff Gordon
Jeff has won three Daytona 500’s so it would be crazy not to think he could win a 4th this weekend. He clearly has the car to do it and he was the dominate driver early on in his duel before a penalty for speeding on pit road cost him a shot at the win. Another reason to think Gordon will be a challenger is how motivated he is to bounce back from his horrendous 2012. It’s been eight years since 4-time has won “The Great American Race;” he is bound to win another one soon.
6) – Trevor Bayne
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner is always one to watch at these restrictor plate races. The Wood Brothers have built him a great machine with Roush-Yates power under the hood for this race. Trevor was very fast in his duel and would have been in contention for the win had fate been kinder. The 22 year old won the 500 for the first time when the Wood Brothers decided to run a throwback paint scheme that they ran back when David Pearson won. Well, that’s exactly what they are doing again this year running another throwback scheme. (It’s a reversal of the Pearson colors) The scheme was run by Tiny Lund back in 1963 winning the Wood Brothers their first of many Daytona 500’s so if you believe in omens, then keep an eye on that Ford Fusion.
5) – Kyle Busch
We may see some single file racing Sunday and guess who will be the first to pull out of line…this guy. Kyle has openly said that he can’t stand to run like that even if it’s just for a couple laps and being the first one to pull out of line will be a big deal at the end of this race. We all watched him hold off the Chevy’s of Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon during his duel and he didn’t even have to do much blocking; his car was just that fast. When the racing gets crazy at the end of the 500, a driver with nicknames like “Wild Thing” or “Rowdy Busch” is who I would want behind the wheel of my race car knowing that he is willing to make the move that no other driver would dare to make. Busch is going to have to temper that aggression though or he will never make it the full distance. His no holds bar attitude could win him the race or it could get him a ride on the back of a wrecker.
4) – Greg Biffle
3rd in last year’s Daytona 500, 2nd in the Sprint Unlimited and 2nd in his Budweiser Duel…do I need to say anything more? While Matt Kenseth was winning all those plate races last year, his wing-man, Greg Biffle was never too far behind. Greg seems to be fairing pretty well even without Kenseth this year as he has battled for the win in every Speedweeks race he has participated in thus far. The 2005 NSCS runner-up has finished inside the top five in the 500 three out of the last four races and with finishes like 3rd, 3rd and 4th; he’s bound to end up in victory lane one of these years.
3) – Matt Kenseth
You can never count out the 2-time Daytona 500 champion, Matt Kenseth. He has become an ace at this kind of racing and is virtually unbeatable. His average finish in the four restrictor plate races from last year was 2.0 leading the most laps in every single race! For the first time ever in Matt’s career, he is showing up to the track in a car other than a Roush-Fenway Racing #17 Ford. The change doesn’t seem to have affected his performance though as he has put that JGR Toyota Camry up front in the duel and in the Sprint Unlimited. The only problem the 2003 champ has faced is the fact that no one wants to work with him. He desperately tried to work the bottom all by himself at the end of the unlimited to no avail and he was freight-trained from 2nd place back to 5th at the end of his duel.
2) – Tony Stewart
The question isn’t will Tony Stewart ever win the Daytona 500, it’s simply a matter of when. He is the modern day version of Dale Earnhardt at this track. Tony has won 18 races at DIS, 2nd only to Dale who has 34. Among those 18 wins are 4 Coke Zero 400’s, 6 Nationwide events, 3 Budweiser Duel’s, 3 Sprint Unlimited’s and 2 IROC races. Smoke has been leading “The Great American Race” with half a lap to go, he’s been wrecked out while running 1st, he finished 2nd in 2004 and has even found himself on his lid during the late stages of the race. He is a serious threat for the win as long as fortune chooses to be in his favor for once. Tony will try for the 15th time this year in his never-ending pursuit to hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy at the end of the Daytona 500.
1) – Kevin Harvick
Lame duck season? Nope! Harvick has been unrelenting during Speedweeks winning the Sprint Unlimited after he made his car 4 lanes wide blocking the field and later in the week, he won his Budweiser Duel after clawing his way by the leaders working the inside line. The question is can Kevin Harvick do what no other driver before him has and that’s pull off the triple winning the Unlimited, the Duel and the 500 in the same year? Many men have tried and all have failed but the 2007 winner of this race has to be everyone’s #1 pick going into this no matter what history tells us. The team is so confident in the car and is so keen on protecting it that they decided to sit out all practice sessions Friday. If he puts little Keelan in the car during pre-race ceremonies before the race, then driver 29 is my pick to win the 55th running of the Daytona 500!