Can an underdog win the Daytona 500?
One needs to go back only one year to answer that question in the affirmative. Trevor Bayne, barely 20 years old and driving for a part-time team, emerged as the 2011 500 champion in one of the race’s greatest upsets.
Although the 500 crown typically goes to a driver and team at the sport’s top levels, drivers considered longshots on the morning of the race have raced into victory lane several times during the 500’s half-century of history.
The wacky nature of the draft in this year’s race could provide the landscape for another upset. Cars that don’t necessarily have the oomph of the frontrunners can ride along in the front pack with a boost from the draft, and the tandem draft, which might help decide the outcome, also is an equalizer.
There are quite a few drivers who might be considered underdogs who have a respectable shot at victory Sunday, and, oddly enough, Bayne, last year’s winner, might be atop that list.
Despite his win last year, Bayne isn’t considered among the race favorites Sunday. His Wood Brothers team will run about half the Sprint Cup schedule this season, and it doesn’t have the full slate of resources the sport’s superteams can boast. Clearly, Bayne has a strong car here, but he wouldn’t be among the top 10 picks most observers would name as race favorites.
How about Kurt Busch? The older Busch brother has never won his sport’s biggest race, and he arrives this year driving for Phoenix Racing, a team certainly not on the same level as giants like Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing, Busch’s former employers.
Yet Busch could slip into victory lane. The Phoenix engines and cars are built by Hendrick Motorsports, and the team, owned by James Finch, almost always has potent cars at Daytona and Talladega.
Two Ford drivers – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Marcos Ambrose – who aren’t on most favorites lists also could surprise. Stenhouse is racing in the 500 only because Roush Fenway Racing has a fourth guaranteed spot in the lineup. The defending Nationwide Series champion has burned some strong laps in practice and qualifying. Ambrose, Richard Petty Motorsports’ lead driver, also has looked good in the days leading to the race.
The biggest upset of all? That would be a 500 win by Danica Patrick, who will be racing in a Sprint Cup event for the first time. Aligned with Stewart-Haas Racing, she also has a potent car, and she has made it clear she isn’t in the race simply to log laps. If she’s in a strong position in the draft in the closing miles, anything could happen.
It’s the Daytona 500. Weird happenings sometimes ride along.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.