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Who Wins? The Daytona 500 for Rookies

For the past several years, the weekend after the Super Bowl has been a marquee event in the calendar of motorsports fans. The Daytona 500 marks the first event on the NASCAR schedule, and it does so with the sport’s most prestigious prize. It’s a grueling 200 lap race on Daytona International Super Speedway which attracts millions of viewers every year.

Never seen it before? Take a look at the highlights from 2023 before reading on.

With NASCAR’s popularity on the rise, especially with the recent release of “NASCAR: Full Speed” on Netflix, I have created a guide for those who want to learn about racing before this Sunday’s 66th running of “The Great American Race”. So, here are my picks to win the 500.

5: Kyle Busch

There may be a slight bias with this pick because the driver of the #8 RCR Chevy has been my favorite driver since day one of watching the sport, but Kyle Busch is seeking redemption in “The Great American Race” after a late race caution doomed his attempt last year. With 3 Top 10s in the event, winning the 500 would give the 2-time champion Busch the last crown jewel needed in his legendary career. Two key sights to look for in this race for Busch are cautions, and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillion.

In Kyle Busch’s illustrious career, he has not won a single Cup Series race at a Super Speedway under green, every win has come as a result of a premature caution. While yellows collapsed his attempt at winning the race last year, they may also be his key to victory as 7 of the last 8 Daytona 500s have featured a last lap wreck.

The second key is his teammate Austin Dillion. Dillion, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner after wrecking Aric Almirola for the win, has matured a lot in recent years, and made it clear from last year that his main goal is to get KB his trophy first and foremost. Kyle Busch may not be at the top of everyone’s polling, but he is certainly a big name to watch out for.

4: RFK Racing

The career revival of Prosper, Texas driver Chris Buescher has been a wonderful sight to witness. He is coming off of an impressive 3 win season, which includes a win in the Fall Daytona race. He has proven to be a strong super speedway driver in recent years.

All that said, I’d be foolish to count out his teammate Brad Keselowski. 2012 Cup Series Champion Keselowski took a large risk when he acquired the fan favorite Roush Fenway Racing at the beginning of the Next-Gen era in 2022, but his leadership has seemingly brought the team back to their glory days.

Brad has yet to score his maiden win with the team, but Buescher has made it clear that he intends to repay the favor to Keselowski after he (Keselowski) pushed Buescher’s #17 to victory lane last fall. Brad has proven to be an excellent superspeedway racer, dominating Talladega for much of the Gen 6 era, however at Daytona he has never achieved as much success. The key for the duo will absolutely be finding each other in the pack. Keselowski likes to push drivers hard (spawning a couple wrecks in prior super speedway races), and Buescher has shown that he can play well to Brad’s driving style.

3: Bubba Wallace

Arguably the most underrated super speedway driver in the field, Bubba Wallace showed excellent growth last season, finishing in his highest points finishing season of 10th despite never reaching victory lane. He came close multiple times last year, but nothing ended up coming to fruition.

With that said, Bubba is expected to be challenging for career win #3 in this race. He has finished as the “bridesmaid” twice in 2018 and 2022, and is looking for redemption. Bubba knows how to get up front late, the only thing to watch out for is whether or not he can get help.

He has multiple close friends in the field, a strong 23XI Racing teammate in Tyler Reddick, and a great driver/owner in Denny Hamlin, however, among this crowd are several drivers who’ve also never been to victory lane in the 500 and will be out for it themselves. Expect Bubba to be waiting in the wings in the closing stages of the race to possibly become the first African-American driver to win the Daytona 500.

2: Ryan Blaney

The reigning champion won his first crown jewel event last year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and he’ll be looking to add to his trophy collection this weekend.

His closest finish in The Great American Race came in 2020 where, in a finish overshadowed by Ryan Newman’s horrific crash, he was just barely edged out by Denny Hamlin for the race win.

Blaney has been seeking revenge in the 500 since, and he has a great chance to start off his incumbent championship season with a bang.

His main strategy will need to revolve around finding his fellow fords in the field. Coming off of a win at Talladega last fall in the most recent superspeedway race, if Blaney can keep it clean, he should be up front competing for the lead when the checkered flag falls.

1: Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin being #1 on this list should’ve been a no-brainer from the start.

The 3-time Daytona 500 champion is only missing an actual Cup Series championship in his legendary career.

That said, it’s clear that he will still be chasing after win number four in The 500. He has proven time and time again that he knows how to get to the front and how to win at Daytona.

There are few scenarios where he isn’t at least challenging for the lead throughout the duration of the race. He doesn’t need a strategy, he just dominates.

Catch this year's running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 18 at 2:30pm on FOX. Then listen to WLTL Sports on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm for coverage of all things sports, only on 88.1 FM, online and on the free Audacy app.

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