If fantasy owners needed a reminder of just how unpredictable Daytona can be, they certainly got one during the Budweiser Duel 150s Thursday. While guys like Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski all finished outside the top 15 in their qualifying races, Josh Wise, Brian Scott and Landon Cassill were among the surprise top-10 finishers. Heck, Scott and Wise ended up logging top-five finishes. Unfortunately, things are only going to be more unpredictable Sunday when 43 drivers take the track at once with a victory in the Daytona 500 up for grabs.
As is typically the case with most restrictor plate races, my rankings tend to change very little. Qualifying and practice times simply aren't great indicators of success on race day at Daytona and Talladega because of the impact of the draft. A few drivers did move up some spots because of strong performances during Thursday's Budweiser Duel 150s, and on the flip side, a few drivers slipped in the rankings after crashing in their qualifying races. On that note, let's take a look at the final driver rankings for the Daytona 500.
The top 3
1) Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He hasn't been dominant during Speedweeks, but Junior has looked strong in his qualifying race, leading 14 laps on his way to a fourth-place finish. Meanwhile, no driver has been better at the plate tracks in the past two years, and he has three second-place finishes in the last four Daytona 500s. Junior topped the rankings to start the week, and he will stay in the top spot heading into Sunday. Â
2) Matt Kenseth
His recent run of dominance at Daytona continued as he won his Budweiser Duel Thursday. In the past 10 races at the track, Kenseth ranks first in points scored, laps led, top-five finishes and top-10s and wins, and he seems to have a car more than capable of adding to that impressive resume this weekend.
3) Kevin Harvick
Although he will have to start deep in the field after failing post-race inspection, his run in his qualifying race was vintage Harvick. He flew under the radar most of the race, but on the final lap, there he was coming within a few inches of a victory. There is a reason that Harvick has scored the second-most points in the series in the last 10 races at Daytona, and while there is no perfect strategy for handling the chaos at the track, his method is certainly one of the best.
9) Kurt Busch
Busch vaults into the top 10 after looking plenty strong in his qualifying race Thursday. He finished third, and after struggling at the plate tracks the past two years while driving for smaller teams, he looked good in his first start with Stewart-Haas Racing. It wasn't all that long ago that Busch reeled off eight top-15s at Daytona in a nine-race stretch from 2007 to 2001, and he could be set to return to form with his new team.
10) Denny Hamlin
Hamlin was one of the few drivers that made a significant move in the rankings, and while his two top-10s in 16 Daytona starts are far from impressive, it's hard to discount what he has done so far during Speedweeks. Hamlin followed his victory in the Sprint Unlimited by winning his Budweiser Duel, and at the very least, you know that Hamlin is bringing a strong car Sunday.
15) Paul Menard
He has been a fairly reliable plate track option since joining Richard Childress Racing, and Menard delivered a fourth-place finish in his qualifying race Thursday. Meanwhile, he has tallied six top-20 finishes in his last 10 starts at Daytona, including five top-15s. Menard isn't a household fantasy name, but he can definitely make a solid addition to rosters this weekend.
28) Marcos Ambrose
His 23.7 average finish at Daytona leaves a lot to be desired, but Ambrose has been impressive so far during Speedweeks. He backed up a top-10 finish in the Sprint Unlimited with a top-five run in his qualifying race Thursday. He will start inside the top-10, and if you are willing to overlook his past struggles at Daytona, he appears to have a car capable of running up front.
Big names outside the top 10
20) Joey Logano
It has been a rough Speedweeks for Logano, and history says his bad luck could continue on Sunday. In 10 starts at Daytona, he has failed to crack the top 15 on seven occasions. Overall, Logano owns a mediocre 20.9 average finish at the track.
24) Martin Truex Jr.
His week started well when he qualified second for Sunday's race. However, Truex crashed in his qualifying race and will have to forfeit his spot on the front row after switching to a backup car. Starting at the rear in a backup is not an ideal scenario for a guy with just one top-10 in 17 career starts at Daytona.