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The Daytona 500 is now three weekends away, and oddsmakers have already established the pecking order for the 63rd running of the Great American Race. There’s a distinct paradox involved in handicapping races at superspeedways. Though restricted horsepower widens the field of possible winners, a handful of drivers invariably seems to win more than a fair share of the events.
The late Dale Earnhardt supposedly was able to “see the air” around cars drafting close together in high-speed packs. Earnhardt won a remarkable 10 races at Talladega. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., apparently inherited the talent. Junior won six times at Talladega and twice in the Daytona 500. At this point, the mantle has passed to Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano—but first and foremost, to Hamlin.
Denny Hamlin’s record in the Great American Race, dating to his 2006 rookie season, is nothing short of remarkable. Yes, he has won the event three times including the last two in a row. Historically, only two drivers have won more—Richard Petty with seven Daytona 500 victories and Cale Yarborough with four.
But that just scratches the surface of Hamlin’s consistent excellence in NASCAR’s marquee event. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has never had a DNF (did not finish) in the Cup Series’ season opener. He has finished on the lead lap in 13 of his 15 starts. In the other two, he was one lap down in a race that’s famous for wiping out a third of its field in a typically massive wreck known as “The Big One.”
Accordingly, Hamlin has opened as the favorite to win the race for the fourth time, at +800. There’s just one problem. No driver has ever won the Daytona 500 three straight times—not Petty, not Yarborough. In order to cash a winning ticket on Hamlin, you’ll have to hope he makes history on Feb. 14.
Hamlin is the lone Toyota driver among the top six picks for the Daytona 500. Chase Elliott, co-second choice with Joey Logano at +1000, is the only Chevrolet driver. Elliott owes his high rating to his status as reigning Cup Series champion—not to his Daytona record, which is mediocre at best.
Elliott has two Daytona 500 poles to his credit, but he has no Daytona wins in 10 starts (including the summer race) and no finish in the Great American Race higher than 14th. Elliott’s average Daytona finish is 24.3, including four consecutive DNFs for crashes spanning 2018 and 2019.
Ford drivers, on the other hand, have an armada. Logano’s Team Penske teammates, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney are listed at +1100, followed by Kevin Harvick at +1300. Harvick won the Daytona 500 in 2007. Logano won it in 2015, and Keselowski has a victory in the summer race at the 2.5-mile speedway to go with five triumphs at sister track Talladega. If the Ford drivers team up in the draft, they could control the race.
Oddsmakers have installed Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott as co-favorites to win the NASCAR Cup Series title this year. Elliott, of course, is the reigning Cup champion, having seized the title with dramatic back-to-back wins at Martinsville and Phoenix to close the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season.
After moving to Stewart-Haas Racing, Harvick won his only championship in 2014. But Harvick is the career leader in Cup victories among active drivers with 58. In 2020, he led the series with nine wins, a personal best for a single season, and tops in the Cup ranks.
Following Harvick and Elliott is Denny Hamlin at +650 and Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski (all at +700). With titles in 2015 and 2019, Busch is the only active Cup driver with more than one championship, now that seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson has left the series to race IndyCars.
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Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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