Which Drivers Have the Best Chance to Win Their First Daytona 500 in 2014?
There's no other race in NASCAR like the Daytona 500. It's stock car racing's version of the Super Bowl and Indianapolis 500 combined.
They don't call it the Great American Race for nothing.
That's why the 500 is No. 1 on the bucket list of every Sprint Cup driver. Even if they fail to win any other race in their career, if they win the big one at Daytona, they'll forever be in a select class known as Daytona 500 Champion.
While Jimmie Johnson will be looking to successfully defend last year's Daytona 500 win—which kicked off Johnson's run to a sixth Sprint Cup championship—there remains a plethora of drivers still chasing their first 500 win.
If a former 500 winner doesn't perform a repeat performance in this year's race, of all those who have yet to take the checkered flag at the 500, the following five drivers in particular stand out as potential first-time winners on Feb. 23:
Call it a gut feeling, but I have a very strong feeling this is going to be Kyle Busch's year for several firsts, including winning his first Sprint Cup championship.
And to start off that championship run, much like Jimmie Johnson did last season, the younger Busch brother has everything he needs to finally win this year's Daytona 500.
This will be Busch's 19th career start at Daytona. He's already won there once, albeit in summer's Coke Zero 400.
In his nine prior Daytona 500s, the Las Vegas native has struggled like few others. Consider his scorecard: 38th (2005), 23rd (2006), 24th (2007), fourth (2008), 41st (2009), 14th (2010), eighth (2011), 17th (2012) and 34th (2013).
Do the math and Busch has just one top-10 finish to date in the 500.
But given the year he had last season, ending with a career-best fourth-place finish at the end of the 36 races, Busch is primed for even bigger and better things in 2014.
He very well can start with a win in less than two weeks.
Kurt Busch could be one of the best drivers at Daytona International Speedway to never have won a 500.
In 26 career starts riding atop the legendary high banks of the 2.5-mile facility, Busch has 10 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Those are pretty stout stats, indeed.
But unlike younger brother Kyle, who has struggled for the most part in his 500 tenure, elder brother Kurt has a stellar record in the 500.
Since finishing 41st in his first Daytona 500 in 2001, Busch has finished runner-up three different times in the Great American Race—2003, 2005 and 2008.
The last one of that bunch is the most notable, as Busch pushed then-Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman to the win on the final lap.
Busch could just as easily have gone for the win himself, but rather than risk the uncertainty of what might have happened if he tried to pull around Newman at the last possible second, he settled for as close to a sure thing as possible by finishing second yet again.
If there's ever a guy who is owed a win in the Daytona 500—other than perhaps Tony Stewart—it's Stewart's new teammate, Kurt Busch. What a way it would be to kick off his tenure with his new team, Stewart Haas Racing.
Danica Patrick seemingly made it look easy last year, becoming the first female driver to ever win the pole for the Daytona 500.
She then followed it up with a solid eighth-place finish in the actual race itself. Suddenly, NASCAR was gripped in Danica Mania. If she could do that well right out of the box at Daytona, fans started to think Patrick would be a cinch to win several races during the course of her first full season in the Sprint Cup and would likely cap it off with a strong showing in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Unfortunately, as fast as Patrick rocketed to instant Sprint Cup stardom due to her Daytona showing, she just as quickly fell back to Earth and more mundane expectations, ultimately finishing the season in 27th place.
There was no Daytona 500 win; heck, there were no wins period in 2013. Plus, she didn't even come close to qualifying for the Chase.
Still, Patrick has shown that she definitely has a knack for restrictor plate racing at Daytona and Talladega.
Who knows, maybe she can start her second full-time season in Sprint Cup with the way so many had hoped she would in the first season and live up to those expectations of which she fell so short of.
There's nothing more dangerous than an angry driver—someone who is ticked off at himself, at his rivals and the world in general for failing to do something he felt he should have.
That's kind of the way Brad Keselowski comes into 2014. After the spectacular way he went out and won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, the way he wound up in 2013 was 180 degrees different.
From 2012's excitement stemmed 2013's embarrassment, as Keselowski not only failed to defend his prior year's championship, he also failed to even qualify for the Chase last season, ultimately finishing 14th.
He won five races in his championship season, yet barely scraped together just one win last season.
Keselowski is ready to forget about and put the 2013 season behind him. What better way to do so than to start off the 2014 season with a win in the 500—and potentially take the first step towards a second championship in three seasons at the same time.
After finishing fourth in last year's 500, one of the few high spots to his season, Keselowski is one angry young man coming into 2014. He is bound and determined to prove 2012 was not a one-time effort, and that he's not what some non-Keselowski fans have derisively called a "one-hit wonder."
When you put all those elements together, an angry Keselowski very possibly could be the most successful Keselowski on Feb. 23.
What's wrong with this picture?: 30 starts, four wins, nine top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, as well as one pole.
On the surface, it looks like Tony Stewart has been one of the most successful Sprint Cup drivers of his generation at Daytona International Speedway.
But dig below the surface and Stewart and the 500 have been anything but friends. In 15 starts in the Great American Race, starting in 1999, Stewart's scorecard is what it is: 28th, 17th, 36th, 43rd, seventh, second, seventh, fifth, 43rd, third, eighth, 22nd, 13th, 16th and 41st.
For probably the last five Daytona 500s, Stewart has come in as one of the pre-race favorites, only to fall short again and again. He's become somewhat of the Dale Earnhardt of his generation. Earnhardt went through 20 500s before finally winning the sport's biggest crown.
Stewart is in the same position at 15 500s and counting.
What makes this year's 500 different, however, is Stewart's motivation. He's coming off the worst year and injury of his racing career. When he suffered multiple fractures of his leg in a Sprint car race early last August, not only did he have to endure three surgeries and extensive rehabilitation, he also missed the last 15 races on the Sprint Cup schedule.
While some fans may wonder if Stewart is fully ready to resume Sprint Cup racing in the 500, what better way for him to show that he truly is back than to finally do his imitation of Earnhardt and finally knock that winless 500 monkey off his back once and for all?
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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