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Top 10 dark horses to win the 2014 Daytona 500

February 08, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders could be in the mix

In the Daytona 500, anything can happen.

We've certainly been reminded of that before, in the form of Trevor Bayne screaming in disbelief over the radio after delivering Wood Brothers Racing perhaps the most unlikely of the storied team's five victories in the Great American Race. We saw the possibility when David Ragan made a move to the front in a green-white-checkered finish in 2011, and when Dave Blaney sat in the lead at a red flag one year later.

It may be the biggest stock-car event on the planet, but the limits of the restrictor plate and the vagaries of the draft can still combine to jack improbability to the hilt. Premier-series events at Daytona have given us winners like Sam McQuagg and Greg Sacks, shockers even before restrictor plates became a fact of life on the high banks. It gave us a victory by Greg Biffle before anyone had any idea who the guy was. It helped a rookie named Danica Patrick nearly steal the show at Speedweeks one year ago.

In fairness, form typically holds, and it's usually a championship-caliber driver from an established powerhouse team lifting the Harley J. Earl Trophy in the sport's most famous Victory Lane. But nearly every year, there's a long shot in there at the end. Michael McDowell finished ninth in the Daytona 500 last year. David Gilliland finished third in the season Bayne won it. A part-time Mark Martin almost stunned everyone in in 2007. We all remember Blaney, sitting in the lead during the red flag for the jet dryer fire in 2012, wondering if the event would resume.

It did, and once again the dark horses were led back to their stables while more familiar names bathed in confetti and champagne. But another Bayne has to emerge again eventually -- doesn't it? After all, anything can happen in the Daytona 500. Discounting former champions of the event, as well as Patrick -- who is a known entity on plate tracks after her run last season -- here are the top 10 candidates to pull a shocker in this year's edition of the Great American Race.

10. Michael Annett

Wait -- a guy with zero victories in the Nationwide Series, making his Sprint Cup debut? Granted, Annett may be something of a reach, although what shaped up as a strong 2013 Nationwide season with Richard Petty Motorsports was derailed by a broken sternum suffered in the opener. Still, car owner Tommy Baldwin knows how to build strong restrictor-plate cars, and we've seen his drivers flirt with breakthroughs at Daytona and Talladega before. J.J. Yeley finished 13th in last year's July race at Daytona, and Blaney was 16th at Talladega. Those same two drivers were 10th and 17th, respectively, in the Daytona 500 a year ago. The rookie Annett may be an unknown in the draft, but his car won't be, and that's half the battle.

9. Casey Mears

It's been a while since Mears earned his lone career victory, at Charlotte, in one of the strangest fuel-mileage finishes you'll ever see. Still, the guy was in Hendrick Motorsports equipment then. For the past three seasons he's been with Germain Racing, and in a car that's often proven more competitive than it's received credit for. Mears finished ninth in Daytona's 400-mile summertime event last season -- his lone top-10 in the No. 13 car to date -- and 18th the year before that. The guy has been around for a while and has a lot of good friends in the garage area, always helpful when you're looking for a push in the draft. So much of Daytona is a matter of being there at the end, and Mears has done more than enough at Germain and his previous stops to convince you he can manage that much.

8. AJ Allmendinger

Admittedly, recent history doesn't exactly instill a whole lot of faith in JTG Daugherty Racing, which has placed 26th and 31st in owners' points the past two seasons. But the single-car team now has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, which can be as strong on plate tracks as anyone, as the results of January testing might indicate. And another positive note is Allmendinger, whose limited runs last season in the No. 47 car offered some promise, and had had his moments on Daytona's high banks before. He finished third in the Daytona 500 in 2009, and in 2011 was 10th and 11th in the two races on the 2.5-mile track. Of course, he was also in arguably better equipment then, and the onus is on JTG to roll out a car as capable as its driver.

7. Justin Allgaier

The team name may be different -- it's been changed from Phoenix Racing to HScott Motorsports, reflecting the recent purchase by new owner Harry Scott Jr. -- but this is the same outfit that's excelled at plate racing throughout its long tenure at NASCAR's top level. Under former owner James Finch, it tallied five top-10s at Daytona, including Regan Smith's seventh-place run in the 500 last year. It won in 2009 with Brad Keselowski at Talladega, where Smith placed sixth in the team's most recent plate outing. Now it has a proven quantity on the pit box in Steve Addington, while Allgaier was a regular contender at Daytona in the Nationwide Series. All that remains to be seen is if the cars are as good on plate tracks as they've typically been.

6. David Gilliland

His Front Row Motorsports teammate may have won last year's spring race at Talladega, but don't forget who was right behind him, pushing Ragan through the middle of the pack to the victory. Don't forget who finished third in the 2011 Daytona 500, or 15th in the track's summertime event last year. Gilliland is an exceptionally strong restrictor-plate racer -- the guy has four top 10s in 13 career starts at Talladega, not bad at such an unpredictable venue -- and perhaps as importantly, the other competitors in the field know it. Given his results and experience level, drivers with better-funded teams aren't going to be shy about making a move with Gilliland if that's what's necessary to get them to the front. In a race where it's good to have friends, that could make a difference.

5. Aric Almirola

Would there be any place better for the storied No. 43 car to finally break its 13-year winless skid than the biggest race of the year? Almirola may not have the best record at Daytona -- his top finish was 13th in last year's 500 -- but he's been very competitive at Talladega, and he's historically shown plenty of speed on plate tracks. Beyond the driver, Richard Petty Motorsports has traditionally turned out fairly strong plate cars -- indeed, some of Allmendinger's best runs at Daytona were during his days in RPM equipment. And thanks to an increase in sponsorship support, RPM has been able to start its own research and development team, which certainly can't hurt in the quest to return the No. 43 to Victory Lane. 

4. Kyle Larson

The organization formerly known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing hasn't had the best of track records recently, but let's not forget what team won the most recent restrictor-plate event on NASCAR's top series. Oh, and let's also not forget that Talladega winner Jamie McMurray also has a Daytona 500 title, and that former driver Juan Pablo Montoya was almost always a threat on NASCAR's most famous track. All that has to bode well for Larson, who has shown a penchant for being able to drive the wheels off everything. Daytona will mark his first Sprint Cup plate race, and veterans are understandably hesitant around drivers without much experience in the draft. But Larson has long shown a savvy beyond his 21 years, and could provide just the boost the rebranded Chip Ganassi Racing is looking for.

3. Paul Menard

OK, in fairness, it might be a little unfair to put Menard on this list. After all, the guy drives for one of the sport's better teams in Richard Childress Racing, he's been at NASCAR's top level for more than seven years now, and he has a Brickyard trophy on his mantle. Still, with one career Sprint Cup victory, Menard's name doesn't immediately jump to the top of the list of prime Daytona 500 contenders, and casual fans would certainly be surprised to see him in Victory Lane. They shouldn't be -- at one point Menard enjoyed three consecutive finishes of ninth or better at Daytona, and he was fourth last fall at Talladega. The guy is steady in the draft, and has that combination of speed and experience that could make him very dangerous in an event like the Great American Race.

2. David Ragan

It you needed any reminding, then last spring at Talladega should have done the trick -- on restrictor-plate tracks, Ragan is for real. His first career victory at the Sprint Cup level came in the summertime event at Daytona in 2011, five months after jumping a green-white-checkered restart likely kept him from beating Bayne in the 500. During his Roush days, he was a regular contender on the sport's two biggest layouts. Since moving to Front Row, his record at Talladega has been hard to beat -- over the past two years there, his average finish is 4.5. As with Gilliland, that degree of consistency means something at such an unpredictable track. Ragan doesn't have quite the same recent record at Daytona, but he clearly knows his way around the place, and he's more than capable of pulling a stunner even bigger than the one he delivered last spring.

1. Austin Dillon

If you think the sight of the No. 43 in Daytona's Victory Lane would warm the hearts of traditionalists, just imagine the prospect of the No. 3 taking the checkered flag in its first Sprint Cup event in 13 years. It's absolutely possible, given the strength RCR cars have traditionally shown on plate tracks, and the savvy Dillon has shown in his limited runs at the premier level thus far. At Talladega last fall, where he substituted for the injured Tony Stewart, Dillon was third at the white flag before being caught up in a last-lap crash. Daytona is a narrower layout, but for the 500 Dillon is bringing back the same car he used to top the speed chart in preseason testing last month.

Perhaps as importantly, the former Nationwide and Camping World Truck series champion fully believes he can win the race. "I definitely do," he said recently. Given that he has 13 previous Sprint Cup starts to his name, including two on plate tracks, Dillon won't be an unknown to the rest of the field. There will be an overload of attention paid to his No. 3 car, but by now he's used to that, and his experience level belies those yellow stripes on his rear bumper. If there's anyone best positioned to pull a stunner like Bayne did three seasons ago, it's Dillon. Winning the 500 took Dale Earnhardt 20 years -- could his successor do it as a rookie?

Hey, in the Daytona 500, anything can happen.

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