Who Will Win This Year's Daytona 500?

Robert Edelstein
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USA Today Sport

The Daytona 500 is always a maddeningly close affair—the average margin of victory for the last 10 of NASCAR’s season-opening races has been a razor-thin .115 of a second. The Florida track’s famed draft easily groups contenders together in a three-wide checkerboard of cars by race’s end. But, says Fox NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip (a three-time series champion in his day), “there’s always somebody who has that magic wand and ends up with a faster car, like [winner] Joey Logano last year. Still, there are a lot of capable drivers and teams who could hit the combination and put themselves in a position to win—but that’s a lot of ifs.”

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Kyle Busch

There are, however, no ifs, ands or buts about how NASCAR’s season-ending elimination-format Chase for the Sprint Cup now matches Daytona for tight thrills. The last two champions, including 2015 victor Kyle Busch, each won their titles by a single point. And Waltrip’s new partner in the booth, four-time Cup titlist Jeff Gordon, smells a possible repeat. “I look at Kyle as similar to [six-time champ] Jimmie Johnson, who had to overcome some things and came close and then didn’t win championships for several years—but boy, once that first one came, he was on fire.”

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Waltrip and Gordon expect plenty of 2016 drama, from Tony Stewart’s final Sprint Cup season (when he recovers from his back surgery) to the first full-time campaign for prized rookie Chase Elliott (taking over the No. 24 car from Gordon) to spirited title runs for former champs Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, along with top contender Logano. But Waltrip also sees Busch starting off—and finishing—well. “He is one of the best raw talents I’ve ever seen,” Waltrip says. “People don’t like to compare him to Dale Earnhardt, but he has Dale’s finesse and he can do things in a car you shouldn’t be able to do.”

Daytona 500, Sunday, Feb. 21, 1/noon c, Fox