Who to Watch in the 2014 Daytona 500

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COMMENTARY | Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin came up victorious last Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, prompting him to cross the finish line with a simple statement: "Any questions?" Those who had questioned whether Hamlin was back to 100-percent after his back injury early in 2013 got their answer in the form of two straight wins from the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry -the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami and the go-for-broke special event at Florida's superspeedway. Will Hamlin be one of the drivers to watch at this Sunday's Daytona 500? Or will a new winner surface a la Trevor Bayne in 2011? It's Daytona - "anything can happen, and," to quote Dale Earnhardt Jr., "it usually does."

Tony Stewart - "Smoke" is back, healed up from his broken leg last August in a sprint car accident and ready to start winning again. He'd like to start at Daytona, where's he's won everything except the 500: four July race wins, seven Nationwide Series race wins and three wins in the Budweiser Duels to name but a few. This will mark Stewart's 16th trip to the Daytona 500 - his time to win is now, to stop the same questions people have been asking about Hamlin.

Jeff Gordon - Gordon is the leading active winner at Daytona, with six wins - three each in February and July. He has 19 top 10 finishes in 42 races, but hasn't had a top 10 finish in the 500 since 2007. Gordon suffered through last season, not getting his first win until the seventh race of the Chase, which he almost didn't make, at Martinsville Speedway. Gordon's not a kid anymore, and he needs to prove he can still run with the kids.

Kevin Harvick - Harvick has two wins at Daytona - one in the 500 and one in July - but both came with the only Cup team he has known until this year, Richard Childress Racing. He's moved on to Stewart-Haas Racing for 2014, which has quality equipment but may be spread too thin this year, as it becomes a four-car team with four strong personalities all wanting the best. If all is spread out equally, there's no doubt Harvick will be successful.

Matt Kenseth - Kenseth was less-than-impressive in his debut for Joe Gibbs Racing in last year's Daytona 500 thanks to Toyota's engine issues, which also took out one of his teammates. He made up for that with the best season of his career since winning the championship in 2003: seven wins, 20 top 10 finishes and a runner-up finish in the Chase. Kenseth earned two Daytona 500 wins during his time with Roush Fenway Racing, but would surely like to add a third trophy to his case with his new team.

Kyle Busch - Also suffering from Toyota's engine woes in last year's 500, Busch has yet to cross the finish line first in the 500. He does have a win in the July 2008 race at Daytona, and as well as wins in the Nationwide Series, the Budweiser Duels and the Sprint Unlimited (or one of its incarnations). 2013 was Busch's strongest Sprint Cup Series season, and he's hoping it continues into 2014.

Dark horse: Kyle Larson - Larson got "the big one" out of the way in 2013, taking down the fence in the Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona - now there's nothing to fear. This year, he moves up to the Cup Series to replace Juan Pablo Montoya, he of notorious Jet Dryer accident fame, and he'll be a part of the strongest rookie battle in years, featuring Austin Dillon, Ryan Truex, Parker Kligerman, Alex Bowman and others.

Source: "Statistical Advance: Analyzing the Daytona 500," NASCAR Media, February 17th, 2014

Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Examiner.com and Skirts & Scuffs.

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