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Why Danica Patrick can win the Daytona 500

Jay Hart
Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The odds of Trevor Bayne winning last year's Daytona 500 were so long, there weren't any. Bayne was such an unknown, he didn't garner an individual line and instead was lumped together with "the field."

Danica Patrick has never competed in a Sprint Cup race. Never. Yet she's already one step ahead of where Bayne was a year ago. She's got a 60-1 chance to win Sunday's Great American Race, according to online sports book Bovada.

So it's become with the Daytona 500, the biggest crapshoot in sports.

Few outside the NASCAR world had ever heard of Bayne before he won last year's Daytona 500 as a 20-year-old rookie. And most haven't heard of him since, mainly because he didn't crack the top 10 again in 2011.

While the Daytona 500 stands as NASCAR's most prestigious race, it's also its most unpredictable. With the engines of all 43 cars governored to run virtually the same horsepower, winning isn't just about skill, but luck as well. It's an ebb-and-flow event with just about everyone taking their turn at the front. Just last year, the 208-lap race featured 74 lead changes and 22 different leaders.

In laymen's terms, the Daytona 500 has become a high-speed game of musical chairs, with the winner being the one who happens to be in front when the music stops. Which is why when Tony Stewart was asked about Patrick's chances of winning the race, he shot back, "Did anybody think Trevor Bayne could win the race last year on this day?

"Anything can happen," he continued. "Here, it is anybody's ballgame. She did a really good job in July last year in the Nationwide race when I ran with her. I was really impressed at how smooth she was and how good a job she did in the two-car deal. Talent, there is no doubt in my mind she has the talent to do it."

[Related Dan Wetzel: Daytona 500 wreck proves Danica Patrick's toughness | See Danica's crash]

Ryan Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, puts everyone's odds at 1 in 43 – landing on 43 because that's how many cars will start the race – and he'll take them.

"That is still pretty good when it comes to winning a $5-million dollar lottery," he said.

Though they aren't bad odds, 1 in 43 are actually the longest odds the top-tier drivers face all season. The following week in Phoenix, the number of drivers with a shot at winning will be fewer than 20. So if you're Jimmie Johnson, Stewart or even Newman – drivers who benefit from top-notch equipment – you have a much better chance of winning a week from Sunday than you do this one.

Conversely, if you're Bayne or David Gilliland or Danica Patrick – drivers with either little experience or mediocre equipment – you won't do better than 1 in 43.

"Take nothing against Trevor. I mean, he did what he had to do to win the race," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "He made some great moves and won that race on his own. He was very smart about how he drove his car. [But] you just don't know who is going to come off of Turn 4 battling for this thing anymore."

Since NASCAR implemented the use of restrictor plates to govern horsepower in 1988 – a move taken to limit speed, keep the cars on the ground and increase safety – there have been 18 different winners in 24 races. Over the last 10 years, there have been 10 different winners and there hasn't been a back-to-back winner since 1994-95.

Derrike Cope, Ward Burton and Michael Waltrip have a combined win total of 11. Four of those are Daytona 500 victories.

Stewart and Mark Martin have 84 wins between them. Neither has ever won the Daytona 500.

And famously, Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed 20 tries before he finally won a 500. That's 19 more than Bayne, who won it in just his second career Cup start.

"I feel good, I really feel good," Patrick said Thursday after a wreck on the final lap of the Duel 150 qualifying race sent her careening into a wall at nearly 200 mph. "I feel comfortable. I feel confident. I feel like if things fall our way and I can take the experience from today into Sunday, I think it can be a good day."

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