Start your engines: Previewing the 56th Daytona 500

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series always seems to have a considerably short layover between the end of one season and the start of another, and with that being said, it’s almost time for the best drivers in stock cars to fight it out at Daytona International Superspeedway.

Noted as the Super Bowl of racing, the Daytona 500 has been a mainstay for the Cup Series since its inaugural race way back in 1959, which provided for a photo finish that helped Lee Petty claim victory over Johnny Beauchamp.

Daytona 500

The Great American Race has had its share of memorable moments during its run as the most anticipated race in the NASCAR season, including the 1979 race that featured the infamous fight that put the sport on the map, the 1988 running that saw the father and son duo of Bobby and Davey Allison take the top two spots, and the 1998 edition that saw Dale Earnhardt, Sr. finally snap his winless streak, a sight that even his biggest rivals could not help but enjoy.

This year’s edition of the Daytona 500 has already provided for one great story to start the seven-day stretch that is normally noted as “Speedweeks”, as Cup rookie Austin Dillon claimed the pole for the 500 in a car fielded by grandfather Richard Childress.

While Dillon, who took the top spot with a time of 45.914 and a speed of 196.019 mph, certainly has proven his ability thanks to his success in the Camping World Truck Series (champion in 2012) along with the Nationwide Series (champion in 2013), the focus of his pole was not centered on the name above the window net on his car, but rather on the #3 positioned below it. Childress always said that he would only run the number made famous by “The Intimidator” if one of his grandsons was behind the wheel, a statement that seemed to essentially shut the door on the number ever hitting the track in the Cup Series again. Instead, Dillon has diligently worked to prove himself and now has it at the top of the speed charts like the Kannapolis, North Carolina native did time after time.

Dillon is now set to lead the pack in that famous black #3

Dillon is now set to lead the pack in that famous black #3

Along with Dillon, several drivers are preparing to shock the motorsports world by taking home the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Here are five dark horses who will be vying to enter Victory Lane come Sunday:

Danica Patrick, #10 GoDaddy Chevrolet – Patrick has been in the news lately thanks to comments by Richard Petty, who simply said that Patrick would win a race on the Cup circuit only “if everybody else stayed home.” While her rookie year was lackluster (27th in the standings with 5 DNF’s), the 31-year-old had her greatest amount of success at DIS, posting an eighth place finish after sitting on the pole in February and then following that up with a respectable 14th place finish in July. Some may believe that the fix is in if the GoDaddy girl grabs the checkered flag (that #3 sitting on pole also sure seems convenient for a sport declining in popularity), but I think it’s an entirely possible scenario that may play out on Sunday.

Danica could shut up her critics with a great run on Sunday

Danica could shut up her critics with a great run on Sunday

A.J. Allmendinger, #47 Kroger Toyota – Allmendinger was becoming one of the young stars in the Cup Series before a failed drug test cost him his ride with Penske, but now he has a second shot with JTG-Daugherty Racing. Still searching for his first win in NASCAR’s top level, Allmendinger has had a moderate amount of success in his time at Daytona, posting six top ten’s in seventeen starts with a best finish of third back in 2009. Allmendinger’s shown a good bit of potential in his stints with Red Bull Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, and Penske Racing, so his uniting with a team that finished 4th with Bobby Labonte in the 2011 Daytona 500 could produce some excitement.

David Ragan, #34 CSX – Play It Safe Ford – The son of former NASCAR journeyman Ken Ragan, David pulled off a major upset last year, winning the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega in the low-budget Front Row Motorsports car. Ragan usually runs very well at Daytona (he picked up his first career win in the 2011 Coke Zero 400) and was fighting to win in 2011 when a controversial penalty for passing before the start/finish line led to a devastating black flag. NASCAR has become less and less monopolized by the multicar teams, which is great news for talented drivers like Ragan.

Paul Menard, #27 Menard’s Chevrolet – The 2011 Indy 500 winner has yet to really make waves in NASCAR (best points finish has been 16th), but that doesn’t mean that his RCR-powered Chevy won’t be in the mix on Sunday. Despite some lackluster numbers at the track in 2013 (21st finish in the 500 and 43rd in the Coke Zero 400), Menard has had favorable stats ever since he joined the team, posting five top ten’s in ten starts at Daytona.

Kyle Larson, #42 Target Chevrolet – Compared favorably to the likes of Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, the 21-year-old is seen as the future of Chip Ganassi Racing, but how quickly he will establish himself among the best the Cup Series has to offer remains to be seen. The 500 has witnessed young guns like Trevor Bayne (twenty years old) and Jeff Gordon (twenty-six years old) sneak past the wily veterans to snag the big win, so it’s safe to say that experience is not a requirement when it comes to Daytona.

Larson is one of NASCAR's young guns that is set to make some noise

Larson is one of NASCAR’s young guns that is set to make some noise

Contenders

Kyle Busch, #18 M&M’s Toyota – “Rowdy” Busch has a “win or go home” mentality that adds excitement to even the most mundane races, but his determination, which sometimes coincides with jumpiness, has not led to much success on restrictor plate tracks, as the younger brother of the 2004 champion holds an average finish of 20th in 36 starts. Although comparing his struggles at Daytona to the likes of Earnhardt is not quite accurate, Busch is no stranger to leading laps at the track; he just cannot maintain runs that leave him in the mix at the end. Can Busch break this curse with a good run on Sunday?

Kyle Busch

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., #88 National Guard Chevrolet – Noted for his outstanding runs at Daytona and sister track Talladega, “Little E” has his work cut out for him in 2014, as fans continue to clamor for a championship and at the very least a victory, something Junior has not picked up since June 2012. With a new points system in play which would have given Earnhardt the championship in 2013, the #88 team looks to strike it big in the 500, a race that the 2004 winner has finished second in for the past two races.

Matt Kenseth, #20 Home Depot Toyota - Kenseth’s pairing with Joe Gibbs Racing was a match made in heaven in 2013, as the 2003 champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner picked up a career-high seven victories in a season that saw the Cambridge, Wisconsin native finish second in points, his best spot in the final standings since 2006. Now energized by a great year that showed his competitors that he still had plenty left in the tank, Kenseth is poised to pick up his third win in the Great American Race, which would tie him with the likes of Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett and would leave him behind only Richard Petty (7) and Cale Yarborough (4) for the most ever.

And the Winner is…

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. The pairing of Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports has not provided for the tremendous amount of success that some projected, but this situation may change with a championship run in 2014. This pursuit of the Cup will start with an impressive run on Sunday, which will conclude with the younger Earnhardt notching one more Daytona 500 victory than his father ever had.

Dale Earnhardt Jr

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