Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: The 40 Horsemen of the Daytona 500

The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season begins this weekend with its traditional kickoff: the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

Forty drivers will duel it out for the most coveted prize in stock car racing.

Seven drivers in the field know the feeling of lifting the Harley J. Earl trophy in victory lane, while the other 33 are chasing that dream.

Who will win the greatest race of them all and add their name to the list of legends? Let’s meet the drivers who will be competing in this year’s Daytona 500

The Former Winners

Austin Cindric, No. 2 Team Penske Ford: He won the biggest race of his life as a rookie last season. The defending Daytona 500 champion will try to protect his crown and become only the fourth driver in history to win consecutive Great American Races.

Austin Dillon, No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet: Although he turned a lot of heads when he won the 2018 Daytona 500, Dillon has quietly become a superspeedway threat. The North Carolinian also won the most recent Cup points race held at Daytona, so he certainly knows his way to the 2.5-mile track’s victory lane.

Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford: The 2014 Cup champion announced last year that the 2023 season will be his last. Even though his Daytona crown came more than 15 years ago, the 2007 victor hopes to claim one more before he goes into the FOX broadcast booth full time in 2024.

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: The Virginia native is easily the most accomplished driver in the Daytona 500 in this year’s field. With three victories, Hamlin will be going for No. 4, which would tie him for second on the all-time list with Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough.

Joey Logano, No. 22 Team Penske Ford: The defending Cup champion is also a Daytona 500 winner, having claimed the 2015 edition. Riding high on momentum, Logano’s reputation of being a fierce superspeedway competitor will certainly benefit him in his quest.

Michael McDowell, No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford: As one of the longest shots to ever win the race, McDowell looks to make it two wins in three years. 2022 was a career year for the Arizona driver, and he will look to follow it up as one of the sneakiest threats in the field.

See also
Jimmie Johnson & Travis Pastrana Bond Over Daytona 500 Berth

Jimmie Johnson, No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet: Arguably the biggest storyline heading into this year’s race is Johnson. After spending two seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series and racing part time in IMSA, the two-time Daytona 500 victor returns part time as a driver ā€” and full time as a co-owner ā€” to the series in which he won a record-tying seven championships. The Legacy Motor Club co-owner qualified his way into his 20th Great American Race as an open car.

Came Close Before

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver finished second to McDowell in 2021. The 2020 Cup champion was also the pole winner in 2016 and 2017.

Aric Almirola, No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford: Almirola was leading the 2018 Daytona 500 on the final lap before he was crashed by eventual winner Dillon. The driver who was originally set to retire following the 2022 season is back again full time in his usual No. 10 Ford for the next few years.

Ryan Blaney, No. 12 Team Penske Ford: With many drivers in the main pack running out of gas on the final lap of the 2017 running, Blaney finished a distant second to winner Kurt Busch. Three years later, he lost in a photo finish to Hamlin. He’s been close before, so 2023 may be the year he finally gets over the hump.

Chase Briscoe, No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford: Briscoe finished third last year. The former ARCA Menards Series champion made a deep playoff run in his sophomore season. Many expect him to do the same in 2023.

Martin Truex Jr., No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: The veteran competitor from New Jersey was on the losing end of the closest Daytona 500 in history back in 2016. With retirement rumors swirling, questions mount around whether the 2017 Cup champion can finally win the 500 before he hangs up his helmet. He’s already found success this season by winning the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum, so the odds may be in his favor.

Bubba Wallace, No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota: Like his good friend Blaney, Wallace has been runner-up in the 500 twice, including last year. Arguably the hungriest driver in this year’s field, will the third time be the charm for the Alabaman?

Veterans

Kyle Larson, No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: Larson has admittedly struggled on superspeedways despite his impressive racing resume. A routine victim of the annual Big One, the 2021 Cup champion hopes to get the monkey off his back this year.

Brad Keselowski, No. 6 RFK Racing Ford: Keselowski struggled in his first year as an owner-driver in 2022. His lone highlight was winning a qualifying racing in last year’s edition. Despite a long list of superspeedway accomplishments, the 2012 champion has remarkably never won the Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch, No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet: Other than Johnson’s return, Busch’s departure from Joe Gibbs Racing was the biggest offseason storyline. Having raced and won for JGR for 15 seasons, the Daytona 500 will mark the 60-time Cup winner’s first start with his new Richard Childress Racing team.

AJ Allmendinger, No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet: Back in a full-time Cup ride for the first time since 2018, Allmendinger is widely considered to be a quiet threat for the playoffs this year. The noted road course ace would prove it right off the back if he could score a walk-off in the 500. He’s finished third twice, so that certainly wouldn’t be out of the question.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet: Although his career has floundered since his two-win campaign in 2017, Stenhouse enters his 11th full-time Cup season in 2023. Getting back on top may be easier said than done as his only top 10 in the Great American Race came all the way back in 2014.

Always in the Hunt

Ross Chastain, No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet: The Watermelon Man broke onto the scene last year by winning two races, ruffling the feathers of veterans and captivating millions with his Hail Melon move at Martinsville Speedway. There is always guaranteed to be plenty of excitement surrounding Chastain.

Christopher Bell, No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: Like Chastain, 2022 proved to be a breakout year for Bell (albeit much quieter and less controversial). The Oklahoma driver racked up his second, third and fourth career wins and his first berth into the Championship 4. Bell’s best 500 finish was 16th in 2021.

William Byron, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: Byron was just beaten out for this year’s pole award by his teammate, Alex Bowman. Nonetheless, the four-time Cup winner has been stout on tracks 2.5 miles in length like Daytona.

Erik Jones, No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet: The Michigander’s first career win came in the summer Daytona race of 2020. After exceeding many expectations in 2022, which included a victory in the Southern 500, Jones looks to top his third-place finish in the 2019 running.

Tyler Reddick, No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota: Many were surprised when Reddick left Richard Childress Racing after claiming three wins in 2022 in favor of Hamlin and Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing. But Hamlin and Jordan saw a tremendous talent in Reddick and lured him to their stable to replace the retiring Kurt Busch. However, the Californian has been snake-bitten in the 500, only recording a best finish of 27th across four starts.

Alex Bowman, No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet: Bowman is now the undisputed king of Daytona 500 qualifying. Having racked up his sixth front row start in as many races, Bowman is riding high from early season momentum, which has included a three-year contract extension to stay at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel Suarez, No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet: Last year, the Mexico native became the first foreign-born driver to win a Cup race in nearly 10 years. Even despite his lack of success on superspeedways, Suarez is posed to be a threat this year with his formidable Trackhouse Racing team.

See also
2-Headed Monster: In Today's NASCAR, Does the Daytona 500 Still Matter?

Quiet Threats

Chris Buescher, No. 17 RFK Racing Ford: The quiet Texan scored a third-place finish in the 2020 edition. After winning the Bristol Motor Speedway night race last year, Buescher and team co-owner Keselowski look to bring another long-awaited Daytona 500 victory back to RFK Racing.

Justin Haley, No. 31 Kaulig Racing: Haley impressed a lot of people by winning the pole for the Busch Light Clash a few weeks ago. He was a Cinderella story when he won a rain-shortened summer race at Daytona in 2019. If he finds Daytona’s victory lane again, he will have a victory to prove his career successes are not a fluke.

Ryan Preece, No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet: After a year-long absence, Preece is back in the Cup Series. This time, it’s with powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing. Some expect Preece to be a stealthy championship threat.

Noah Gragson, No. 42 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet: While Gragson’s personality is not quiet, the buzz around his Daytona 500 chances certainly is. The very talented rookie takes over a car that struggled mightily in 2022. The Daytona 500 crown would go a long way toward his Rookie of the Year chances.

Ty Gibbs, No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota: Gragson’s competition for Rookie of the Year will come from Gibbs. The grandson of owner Joe Gibbs replaces the longstanding Kyle Busch at his grandfather’s team after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2022.

Longshots

Corey LaJoie, No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet: Spire Motorsports has had a surprisingly dismal Daytona speed weeks so far. LaJoie and teammate Ty Dillon were the slowest two cars in qualifying that did not experience mechanical problems. However, there is reason to be optimistic, as LaJoie nearly won a pack race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last year after charging from the back.

Harrison Burton, No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford: Entering his sophomore season, Burton hopes to avenge his first Daytona attempt, a race that saw him end up on his roof. His family is no stranger to Daytona, as his uncle Ward is the 2002 victor and his father Jeff won a summer race.

Zane Smith, No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford: Smith raced his way into the Daytona 500 as an open car. The young Californian won the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship last year but has a long hill to climb if he wants to win at Daytona on his first attempt.

Todd Gilliland, No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford While his father David was the 2007 polesitter, Gilliland finished 33rd last year in his only Daytona 500 start. He will be trying to cobble together a full season this year as he will be competing for at least two different teams in FRM and Rick Ware Racing.

Ty Dillon, No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet: Dillon moves over to Spire after competing for Legacy last season. The younger brother of 2018 Daytona 500 victor Austin Dillon has never come close to Daytona’s victory lane.

Even Longer Shots

Riley Herbst, No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford: Herbst is a full-time Xfinity driver who is making his first career Cup start.

Conor Daly, No. 50 The Money Team Racing Chevrolet: Daly is a seasoned IndyCar driver trying to build a NASCAR career. It is a miracle Daly even made the Daytona 500 after mechanical gremlins prevented him from posting a qualifying lap. He instead raced his way in through the Duels with a skeleton crew.

Cody Ware, No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford: In three attempts, Ware’s best Daytona 500 finish is only 17th. However, the second-generation driver did pick up a very impressive top 10 in the summer race last year.

Travis Pastrana, No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota The least experienced drivers in the field are undoubtedly Daly and Pastrana. Sunday will mark the first time Pastrana has ever strapped behind the wheel of a Cup car. The action sports superstar is back in stock cars after a sporadic career driving in lower series through the 2010s.

BJ McLeod, No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Chevrolet: Four Daytona 500 starts have netted McLeod just one top-10 finish. The owner-driver of the smallest full-time team will have to overcome incredible odds if he were indeed to win.

You can catch all 40 drivers in this year’s Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

About the author

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Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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