Daytona 500 dark horses: 6 feel-good stories to watch

Ryan Newman wrecks in 2020 Daytona 500. Photo credit: Getty Images
Ryan Newman wrecks in 2020 Daytona 500. Photo credit: Getty Images
Jeff Owens
Modified 12 Feb 2021

The Daytona 500 is where dreams are fulfilled and heroes made. A win in NASCAR’s biggest race can make a career or even secure a Hall of Fame nod.

Denny Hamlin, who has 44 Cup Series wins, will try to win a record third straight Daytona 500 Sunday, while stars like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott try to win it for the first time.

The Daytona 500 is also a race where unlikely heroes sometimes rise to the top on NASCAR’s biggest stage. Where dark horses beat the odds to triumph over the sport’s biggest stars. Where young guns and seasoned veterans suddenly rise up to defy the racing gods and write a feel-good story for the ages.

Relief driver Tiny Lund in 1963. Fan favorite Benny Parsons in 1975. A 50-year-old Bobby Allison outrunning his son in 1988. Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500 after 20 tries in 1998. Dale Earnhardt Jr. following in his father’s footsteps in 2004 and again in 2014.

Who are the dark horses who could rewrite history in the 63rd running of the Daytona 500?

Here’s six who could ride the wave of their own unique circumstances into victory lane:

2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman

When the Daytona 500 ended last year, Newman was sliding across the finish line on the roof of his car, a frightening crash that sent him to the hospital and left friends and family fearing for his life. Newman was headed for the checkered flag when Ryan Blaney bumped him during a battle for the win, sending Newman’s Roush Fenway Ford flipping and rolling and sliding on its top.

Newman miraculously walked out of a Daytona Beach hospital a few days later and missed just three races due to the injury. He was headed for his second Daytona 500 victory when he and Blaney made contact. A second chance at another Daytona 500 trophy would be sweet justice for a sentimental favorite and NASCAR’s second-oldest Cup driver.

Also Read: Daytona 500 winners: Records, upsets

Daytona 500 pole winner Alex Bowman

Also Read: Alex Bowman makes history with Daytona 500 pole

Bowman has had a fast car four straight years at the Daytona 500. He has won two Daytona 500 poles and earned front-row starts four years in a row. But it has not translated to success at the big race. Bowman’s best Daytona 500 finish is 11th in 2019.

Bowman has two career wins at Hendrick Motorsports. He’d love to win the big one in his first race in Jimmie’s Johnson’s No. 48.

23XI's Bubba Wallace

This one would make headlines and stir emotions nationwide. Wallace, NASCAR’s only active African-American driver, made headlines last year when he spoke out on the racial tensions gripping the country. As NASCAR’s chief spokesman on racial diversity, he has an even greater platform now driving for NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Bubba Wallace during Daytona 500 qualifying.
Bubba Wallace during Daytona 500 qualifying.

With backing from team co-owner Denny Hamlin and partner Joe Gibbs Racing, Wallace will have a fast car in the Daytona 500. He could put NASCAR back on the national map with a win in his first race with 23XI Racing.

Kyle Larson

Conversely, racial tensions wrecked Larson’s season last year and threatened his career. After he uttered a racial slur during an iRacing event, Larson was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Kyle Larson during Daytona 500 qualifying.
Kyle Larson during Daytona 500 qualifying.

Also Read: Kyle Larson "grateful" for second chance

The talented 28-year-old driver has a second chance and golden opportunity at Hendrick Motorsports. He has said and done all the right things since his reinstatement. A win in the Daytona 500 could relaunch a once-promising career.

Daytona 500 runnerup Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney during Daytona 500 qualifying.
Ryan Blaney during Daytona 500 qualifying.

It’s not so much revenge Ryan Blaney wants; it’s a reckoning. Or restitution.

Blaney was on his way to a win in the season-opening Busch Clash Tuesday when buddy Chase Elliott wrecked him in the final turn. Though that race was on the Daytona Road Course, Blaney would love a victory on the famous Daytona oval as payback. He has two wins at Talladega and a pair of runner-up finishes at Daytona. He has the car and talent to collect the debt.

Busch Clash: Blaney, Eliott wreck on final lap

Daytona 400 winner Erik Jones

Jones had a bright future at Joe Gibbs Racing — until Gibbs declined to extend his contract after a disappointing 2020 season. Jones landed at Richard Petty Motorsports when Bubba Wallace decided to leave Petty for Michael Jordan’s new team.

Erik Jones
Erik Jones

Jones went from a NASCAR powerhouse to a historic team that hasn’t won a race since 2014 and has struggled to compete. He is a talented young driver, though, who has had success at Daytona. He won the July race at Daytona in 2018 and finished third in the 2019 Daytona 500 before winning last year’s Busch Clash.

Jones has one of the best tutors in the business in seven-time Daytona 500 winner Richard Petty. His star would rise if he could put Petty’s famous No. 43 in victory lane again.

Published 12 Feb 2021
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