Daytona International Speedway has smiled on a variety of drivers in its 61 years of hosting its annual 500-mile classic. Daytona 500 winners have spanned the spectrum of favorites (Elliott, Roberts, Petty, Yarborough to name a few), underdogs (Bayne, Cope et al) and champions who endured agonizing waits before finally coming through (the elder Earnhardt and Waltrip).
Seven former Daytona 500 winners are expected on the entry list for this year’s Great American Race (Feb. 16, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). Several candidates — favorites and underdogs alike — are poised to join that list with their first victory in NASCAR’s crown jewel.
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The calendar is creeping toward February, so NASCAR.com’s Alex Weaver and Zack Albert attempt to get a jump on Speedweeks with their picks for a first-time Daytona 500 champ.
Albert: Brad Keselowski. There’s often conjecture and debate surrounding the best drivers to never win a NASCAR championship. How about the best superspeedway racer to never win a Daytona 500? That’s also a short list, and Brad Keselowski’s name rises to the top of it.
This year’s running will mark Keselowski’s 11th try at the Great American Race. While the style of racing at Daytona is similar to that at Talladega Superspeedway, Keselowski’s strongest suit has been at the Alabama venue, which has produced five of his 30 Cup Series victories. The 35-year-old driver has won just once at Daytona (July 2016), but his runs at the 2.5-mile track since then have free-fallen. He’s crashed out of five of the last six Daytona races.
Keselowski’s Team Penske teammates — Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano — have fared better in recent 500s, so the organization’s power there remains a strong suit. Many factors make Daytona difficult to win, but Keseslowski’s career-long superspeedway savvy makes him a top choice to break through this year.
Weaver: Matt DiBenedetto. Daytona is typically associated with the words “survive and advance.” It’s a track where anything can happen and any driver can end up in Victory Lane — just control your own destiny. Which driver has modeled his career around hard work, talent and the survival mentality? Let’s add the fact that he is now driving for an organization with a rich history in the Daytona 500. Matt DiBenedetto is heading to Daytona with one thing on his mind — creating more history for the Wood Brothers in the No. 21 Ford.
It was shaping up as the greatest day of DiBenedetto’s career as he was a legitimate threat to win in February of 2019. Leavine Family Racing had his No. 95 out front for 49 laps, more than any driver in the 40-car field. DiBenedetto was in fourth position at the time of the 21-car pileup in Turn 3 on Lap 192 when the wreck ensued. The heartbreak of last year’s finish should light a fire for him this season. If his car can stay off the tow truck, DiBenedetto has shown that he is capable of a strong finish at Daytona – he finished ninth in 2017. We all know that there is no driving force more powerful than redemption.
DiBenedetto is now in some of the best equipment in the garage – while it will be a leap going from a Toyota to a Ford – he now has the help of Team Penske’s notebook and allies like Keselowski, Blaney and Logano. What better of a fate could the 28-year-old have than to shake off the ghosts of Daytona past and start the 2020 season as a Daytona 500 winner? I’ll bet you 50 push-ups that DiBenedetto will give it everything he’s got.