DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There are plenty of drivers that can possibly win Sunday’s 59th Daytona 500, but only a few of them have earned the role as a favorite.
In the past, there have been single drivers who have been so good throughout Speedweeks that they were the singular favorite to win the Daytona 500. Bill Elliott was the class of the field in 1985 and 1987 and was the driver to beat among those in the old garage area at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
There were other years where the great, late Dale Earnhardt won the Clash, one of the qualifying races, the Saturday race in what is now known as the XFINITY Series and even raced in the old International Race of Champions (IROC) Series back when that series competed at Daytona.
But unlike Elliott in 1985 and 1987, Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 was often filled with disappointment and near misses. It wasn’t until 1998 when Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500, his only victory in the ‘Great American Race’ in his career.
In Sunday’s 59th Daytona 500, there will be an Elliott and an Earnhardt leading the field to the green flag of NASCAR’s biggest race at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time. Second-year driver Chase Elliott, Bill Elliott’s son, won the pole for the second year in a row last Sunday when he knocked two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. off the pole as the final driver to make a qualifying attempt.
It may be too early in young Elliott’s career; however, to place him in the favorite category but Earnhardt definitely should be considered one of the favorites.
He is certainly the fan favorite of the NASCAR fans that follow the series every week. He won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014 and could possibly win it again on Sunday, especially after the way he dominated Thursday’s second Can-Am Duel by leading 53 laps of the 60-lap race before he was passed by eventual winner Denny Hamlin after he got a push from Austin Dillon heading to the white flag lap.
In any other year Earnhardt would be a solid favorite, but this year is different because he missed the last half of last season after suffering a concussion. After spending months treating the concussion, Earnhardt has returned to the sport confident and rejuvenated and anxious to prove he is just as good as ever.
“I feel great,” Earnhardt said. “I’m really happy that I feel great. This is what I was looking forward to throughout all the process, was to get well and just feel like myself again. I’m really thrilled about that, to be honest with you.
“To get the OK, I knew how I felt so I wasn’t surprised to get cleared when we went through that process. The best feeling I think was just showing up and seeing my guys. Walking to the car with my suit on, my guys standing around the car, ready for me to get in. Just everybody, we all kind of wanted to high five at that moment. It was pretty awesome that day in Darlington. Then we sort of had that same moment at Phoenix when I walked into the hauler. We all just hollered.
“It’s just a good bunch of guys that enjoy working together. I’m so lucky to have that kind of camaraderie and friendship with them. It makes the job a lot more fun when you’re working with your friends.”