staff picks for the Daytona 500 winner

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The thrill of victory at any track is appealing and expected, but the allure of the Daytona 500 Harley J. Earl trophy is especially coveted among the garage. The season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway has seen nine different winners since 2010, with Austin Dillon most recently taking the checkered flag in the 2018 running.

Can Dillon repeat for the first time since Sterling Marlin in 1995? Will 2016 Daytona 500 champ Denny Hamlin snap his winless streak from last season? Or will the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series see a new face in Victory Lane? Ahead of the “Great American Race,” staff members predict who will break through for the checkered flag in Sunday’s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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Denny Hamlin: Difficult to go against the Ford brigade after their weeklong show of strength, but sticking with my pre-Speedweeks pick, leaning on his veteran expertise. – Zack Albert

Kyle Busch: It’s just a matter of time, right? Busch already entered the season with a chip on his shoulder after coming up short at Miami and he’s perhaps even more determined now after a challenging Speedweeks. I’m guessing “Rowdy” will turn frustration into elation Sunday and take home his first Daytona 500 win. – Pat DeCola

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson had an offseason full of change with a new crew chief and new sponsor, but it seemed to only make his drive for success higher. He started out Speedweeks strong by taking the checkered flag in The Clash and the rest of his winning season will start with a trip back to Victory Lane in Daytona. – Marissa Fuller

Paul Menard: I think we are primed for a bit of a surprise winner, but with the speed the Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 has shown as well as that of the Fords, it would be no surprise here. – RJ Kraft

Brad Keselowski: He’s one of the best to ever grace NASCAR’s superspeedways — but has yet to win the sport’s biggest event. While he does have to start from deep in the field, Keselowski’s talent combined with crew chief Paul Wolfe’s strategy should lead the duo to Victory Lane at the end of the day. – Jonathan Merryman

Ryan Blaney: The Ford Mustangs have looked speedy and sporty all weekend, so let’s start there. Then it’s a combination of superspeedway skills, a blend of both patience and daring, plus a little bit of luck. As a new era of NASCAR kicks off, one of its brightest young stars drives his way to Victory Lane. – Brad Norman

Ryan Blaney: After his runner-up in 2017 Daytona 500, the No. 12 driver led a race-high 112 laps in last year’s season-opener, finishing seventh. The revered Penske prowess at restrictor plates – and equally impressive teamwork on superspeedways – puts Blaney is an ideal position to turn a top 10 into a breakthrough victory. – Jessica Ruffin

William Byron: We know the Daytona 500 pole winner has speed in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The sophomore driver showed veteran prowess in Thursday’s Duel race, spending time at the front while having the awareness to remove himself from sketchy situations in the draft. Those skills, along with leadership from crew chief Chad Knaus, will land Byron in Daytona’s hallowed Victory Lane to become the first driver since Dale Jarrett in 2000 to win from the pole. – Chase Wilhelm

Joey Logano: The Fords are fast and Logano has the perfect mix of patience and aggression for the biggest tracks. You can’t play scared at Daytona but you can’t be careless, either. Logano seems to have everything in control and has become the driver others don’t want to see in their rearview mirror. – George Winkler

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