The Daytona 500 is the Great American Race for a reason. Dreams are realized, careers are validated and history is made each and every season. For the 55th time in history, 43 cars will attempt to finish 200 laps around the 2.5-mile asphalt tri-oval called the Daytona International Speedway.
What makes this particular event the Super Bowl of NASCAR is its unpredictability. Since 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth (twice) have won the prestigious event. But so has Ward Burton, Michael Waltrip (twice), Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.
Burton had five wins in 375 career NASCAR starts and went his last full four seasons following his 500 victory in 2001 without a top five. Waltrip has started 770 career races and two of his four career wins have come in the Great American Race. McMurray has six career wins in 366 starts and hasn’t even finished in the top five in 48 straight races (Bristol, 2011). And the ultimate Cinderella story, Trevor Bayne, in a historic Wood Brothers Ford, won the sports’ highest honor in just his second career start in NASCAR. He has just two top 10s in 32 races since.
Needless to say, the race is a total crapshoot. When 43 cars ride wide open at over 200 miles per hour inches from each other, anything can happen — especially, when the sport is breaking in a new vehicle. So while superstars of the sport — Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch to name a few — are all searching for their first Daytona 500 championship, there is a host of upstarts who feel like they too can compete for a title this Sunday.
Related: The Top 10 Races to Attend in 2013
Athlon Sports’ 2013 Daytona 500 Wildcards to Watch:
Ricky Stenhouse, No. 17
Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Stenhouse enters his first full season of Sprint Cup action with back-to-back Nationwide points championships under his belt. His high-profile relationship with Danica Patrick aside, Stenhouse’s driving skills are what earned him a spot in one of the most successful Daytona 500 cars in recent years. Matt Kenseth wheeled the No. 17 Roush Ford to victory twice in the last four years in the season’s opening race and Stenhouse has the make-up and experience to make waves in his second career Daytona 500 start. He has his work cut out for him, however, starting 28th on Sunday.
Austin Dillon, No. 33
Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
This will easily be the most watched young driver in the field. Dillon, Richard Childress’ grandson, is one of the rising stars of the NASCAR ranks and has all the tools to push for a win in his just his third career Sprint Cup start and his first at Daytona. He ran extremely well in his first full Nationwide season in 2012, finishing third in the points championship. He also ran extremely well in the Bud Duels on Thursday, earning a Sunday starting spot outside of Row 4. He is experienced well beyond his 22 years of age and has been labeled as a driving prodigy by some. Watch out for the Honey Nut Cheerios Chevy on Sunday afternoon.
Kurt Busch, No. 78
Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet
It would not be that big of a shock to see a former points champion in victory lane at Daytona, however, if Busch wins the biggest race of the season it would be considered a huge upset. Busch has won 24 races in his career and clearly has elite driving talent. However, he has had major off the track issues over the last few seasons and is racing for a big underdog in Furniture Row Racing. He hasn’t won in 43 Sprint Cup starts and he posted just one top five in 2012. He raced well in the Duels and will start 11th on Sunday.
Marcos Ambrose, No. 9
Richard Petty Motorsports Ford
The Australian has tons of ability and it nearly led to an appearance in the Chase a year ago. While his strengths is clearly on short tracks and road courses, it doesn't mean that Ambrose can't compete at a plate track. He finished 13th in this race a year ago and is coming off his best points finish of his career (18th). Richard Petty's cars aren't the same as the bigger teams but they have what it takes to win the big one. Ambrose will begin the race in the 24th starting spot.
Joey Logano, No. 22
Penske Racing Ford
Sliced Bread hasn’t quite lived up to his billing since entering the sport full-time in 2009. After four full seasons, Logano has two career wins (one on rain) and has never finished higher than 16th in the points standings. He posted just two top-five finishes a year ago and is now racing for a new team. Penske won the points title a year ago, so Logano should have competitive equipment and has the upside to find himself near the front in the race’s closing laps. He will start 21st.
Michael Waltrip, No. 26
Swan Racing Toyota
Most people find it difficult to root for Mikey, however, watching the Sandy Hook tribute paint scheme on the No. 26 Toyota will be emotional for many in this country. Waltrip has won this race twice before (in much better equipment) and was inches from winning at Talladega a year ago before he collected Tony Stewart in the season’s biggest wreck on the penultimate lap. He knows how to drive at restrictor plate tracks and should be in the mix near the end.
Related: The 10 Most Memorable Daytona 500s