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Nick DeGroot

The six drivers vying for a spot in the 2023 Daytona 500

36 cars are already locked into the field due to the charter system, but four spots remain open ahead of the 65th running of NASCAR's crown jewel event.

Of the six drivers fighting for one of those coveted positions in the Daytona 500 this week, five of them have never run the 500 before. The other is a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

The top open finisher from each Duel race will lock themselves in, and the then the two highest qualifiers who don't race their way in will join them.

Jimmie Johnson - No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet

Past experience

The only driver on this list to have even previously started a Daytona 500, and he's done far more than that. Johnson is one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, winning a record-tying seven championships that puts him in an elite group alongside Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty. Five of those titles came in succession, a feat never accomplished before and probably never to be replicated again.

He also has 83 race wins, including two in the Daytona 500 (2006 and 2013). He's run the 'Great American Race' 19 times before, even earning pole position there on debut in 2002. Johnson is by far the most experienced Cup driver on this list.

The situation

Johnson returns to NASCAR for the first time since the 2020 season finale. Since then, he's been competing in IndyCar and in various IMSA endurance races. Because of this, he has never raced the Next Gen car, but did get to run some laps in a test session at Phoenix Raceway last month.

This is an entirely new situation for the seven-time champion, forced to fight his way into the field like this. He returns to NASCAR as a co-owner of the Legacy Motor Club race team (formally Petty GMS) with intentions of running a handful of races himself this year. Oh, and he's also preparing to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a few months.

Championship-winning crew chief Todd Gordon will lead the team from atop the pit box. He and driver Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 together, and he will be a great asset for Johnson.

Johnson is the oldest driver on the entry list at 47 years and five months of age. He may be older and a few years removed from his glory days, but it would be a shocker if this car and driver combination fails to make the 500 field.

Jimmie Johnson, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images)

Travis Pastrana - No. 67 23XI Racing Toyota

Past experience

Pastrana's resume might just be too long to list here, as he has driven just about everything with an engine at some point in his life. He has found the majority of his success behind the wheel of a rallycross car or on a bike. His experience in NASCAR is limited, and his Cup experience is nonexistent. He hasn't been fulltime in NASCAR in nearly a decade, and has only run a handful of Truck races since then.

Pastrana has raced at Daytona before though, running both Xfinity races there in 2013. He showed promise, finishing tenth in the first race, but was collected in a crash in the other. He actually earned pole position at another superspeedway (Talladega) during that same season.

The situation

Pastrana may be the most inexperienced Cup driver in the field, but he has raced stock cars at Daytona before. Even still, a lot has changed since then. His first lap in this Next Gen car will be his first flying lap of qualifying. Pastrana's second lap will be when the Duels begin, so he faces an incredibly difficult task. 

But his advantage lies not only his natural skills, which have made him a globally recognized name, but also the car underneath him. 23XI Racing finished runner-up in the Daytona 500 just last year, and the team is co-owned by Denny Hamlin, a three-time winner of the event. Beyond that, with so few Toyotas in the field, he can expect immense support in the Duels from both his 23XI teammates and the flagship Toyota team — Joe Gibbs Racing.

Travis Pastrana (Photo by: Travis Pastrana)

Conor Daly - No. 50 The Money Team Racing Chevrolet

Past experience

With nine starts in the Indianapolis 500, Daly has plenty of wheel-to-wheel experience at high speeds. But the comparisons between NASCAR at Daytona and IndyCar at IMS end right about there. 

Although this will be his first go at NASCAR's Daytona 500, it actually won't be his first race behind the wheel of a Next Gen car. He competed at the Charlotte Roval in 2022 with this same team, finishing 34th and completing 109 of 112 laps. 

The situation

Daly has just four starts across all three national divisions, which even puts him below Pastrana in appearances. However, having driven this car before is something not everyone on this list can say, and will be invaluable on qualifying day.

As for the team, TMT Racing has been in this uncomfortable position before. Although lacking the resources of many of their rivals, they made the 500 as an open entry last year with a dramatic last-lap pass. Daly will also have veteran crew chief Tony Eury Jr. atop the pit box, guiding him along. They may be the weakest team on this list, but could lightning actually strike twice for the Floyd Mayweather-owned race team?

Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (Photo by: IndyCar Series)

Zane Smith - No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford

Past experience

The reigning NASCAR Truck Series champion stands out as one of the more promising prospects rising through the ranks today. He made his Cup debut at Gateway last year, finishing an impressive 17th while subbing for Chris Buescher. He's also the winner of seven Truck Series races, and has finished no lower than second in points over the last three years there.

Additionally, he's won at Daytona before, taking the checkered flag in the 2022 Truck Series season-opener. 

The situation

Front Row Motorsports are usually considered the underdog on track, but they've proven to be a formidable opponent at superspeedways. They've won at both Talladega and Daytona, claiming an upset win in the 2021 Daytona 500 with driver Michael McDowell. Smith will be their third entry in the 500 this year and with the other two drivers already locked in, their main priority will be to ensure that their rookie teammate makes the show as well.

Smith is among those on this list who has never run the 500 before, but his one-off start at Gateway as a relief driver proved his adaptability. He will no doubt be a force to be reckoned in both qualifying and the Duels.

Zane Smith, Front Row Motorsports, Michael Roberts Construction Ford F-150 (Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images)

Chandler Smith - No. 13 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet

Past experience

Chandler Smith (no relation to Zane) is another promising young talent climbing up the NASCAR ladder. He holds five victories as a Truck Series driver, and will move up to the Xfinity Series fulltime in 2023.

He ended the 2022 Truck Series season third in the championship standings, and previously won ten races as an ARCA driver.

The situation

The 20-year-old is one of the youngest drivers entered in the race (only Ty Gibbs is younger), but he has another solid team behind him. Kaulig Racing has been a juggernaut on superspeedway tracks in the Xfinity Series, and is only getting stronger at the Cup level.

They've won four of the last six Xfinity Series races at Talladega, and three of the last seven at Daytona. Smith will have teammates A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Haley to lean on as Kaulig aims to have three cars in the same 500 for the very first time.

Chandler Smith, Kyle Busch Motorsports, Safelite AutoGlass Toyota Tundra (Photo by: Jasen Vinlove / NKP / Motorsport Images)

Austin Hill - No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet

Past experience

Hill made his lone Cup start last year at Michigan, finishing a respectable 18th with Richard Childress Racing. He's also a driver that is no stranger to winning at superspeedway tracks.

His first of eight Truck Series victories came at Daytona in 2019. Three years later, he earned his maiden Xfinity win at Daytona as well. A few months after that, he won at the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway, which now resembles a superspeedway more than any intermediate track.

The situation

Hill enters this race with very limited experience behind the wheel of the Next Gen car, but still more than some of the other drivers we've already looked at. His past success at Daytona is a good sign as well, showing he knows how to navigate the high intensity pack racing that Daytona always produces. 

Beard Motorsports is a part-time team that has attempted the Daytona 500 six times, making the field in five of those. That's a pretty good record. Their best result came in 2020, finishing seventh with Brendan Gaughan. Their best finish ever came at the rain-affected 400-miler at Daytona just last year, with Noah Gragson snagging a fifth-place finish.

With their record for making the big race and Hill's previous success at Daytona, this entry, likely overlooked by many, stands out as a real contender for one of the final four spots in the field.

Austin Hill, Richard Childress Racing, United Rentals/Bennett Chevrolet Camaro (Photo by: Ben Earp / NKP / Motorsport Images)

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