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Sunday morning, just a few hours before the 2023 Daytona 500, yours truly penned an article boldly declaring seven drivers as the “best bets” to win The Great American Race.

Yeah, that story didn’t age so well. 

In fact, I’m still picking pieces of egg off my face after failing — miserably — to name Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the seven drivers who, in my maybe not-so-expert opinion, were legitimate contenders to go to Victory Lane.

The thing is, I’ve watched probably well over 100 races at Daytona in my lifetime, and I’ve been a full-fledged professional NASCAR journalist for almost two decades — including the three years I spent at FOX Sports traveling the circuit and interviewing pretty much anyone who was anyone in the sport.

So, believe it or not, I actually do possess the credentials necessary to make the Daytona 500 prognostications I made this past weekend.

However, that doesn’t change the fact I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The question is how under heaven a writer of my NASCAR expertise didn’t include the eventual Daytona 500 winner on a list of seven drivers with a great opportunity to prevail.

I’ll tell you how: It’s simply become impossible to pick the winner of this race. And in just a minute, we’ll explore the reasons why. But first, a little context is necessary.

The days of NASCAR’s big guns going to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500 are on hiatus

From 2012-20, none of the drivers who won the Daytona 500 was a major surprise.

Sure, Austin Dillon wasn’t on most folks’ shortlist of favorites to capture the 2018 season-opener at 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway. But given that Dillon is legendary team owner Richard Childress’ oldest grandson and he was driving a black No. 3 car with a paint scheme similar to the one Dale Earnhardt wheeled to four of his six championships at Richard Childress Racing, his triumph at The World Center of Racing could hardly be characterized as a shocker.

The other drivers who finished P1 in the Daytona 500 over this nine-year stretch were all among NASCAR’s elite: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Denny Hamlin, who earned not one, not two, but three Harley J. Earl trophies during this period.

But over the last three years, one’s chances of picking the winner of the Daytona 500 have been about as good as their chances of winning the lottery.

In 2021, veteran Michael McDowell emerged from the shadows of more than a decade’s worth of obscurity to score his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th career start. The race? You guessed it. The biggest one of all: the Daytona 500.

Then, last year, Cup rookie Austin Cindric found his way to Victory Lane at The World Center of Racing in just his eighth start in NASCAR’s premier division.

Now enter Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who on Sunday ended a drought dating back to 2017 and prevailed for just the third time in 365 Cup outings.

Who, if they’re completely honest, really thought any of the last three Daytona 500s would go to any of these drivers? In a word: No one.

Winning the Daytona 500 has become more about luck and survival than skill or equipment

So why are everyone’s Daytona 500 forecasts — especially mine — so wide of the mark these days? In short, this race has become nothing more and nothing less than a demolition derby.

Already unpredictable due to the sheer nature of superspeedway racing, where drivers run two-, three- and sometimes even four-wide in big packs all day, Daytona has become even more of a stab in the dark now that it seems like virtually every year, a healthy — or not-so-healthy — chunk of contenders get wiped out in one or more multicar crashes and don’t even see the checkered flag.

The chances of this happening are, of course, exacerbated significantly by NASCAR’s overtime rules that ban the race from finishing under caution — at least at its advertised distance — and allow up to three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.

In the 65th installment of The Great American Race, the two overtime restarts triggered not one but two multicar accidents that collected a total of more than 20 cars. That’s not a misprint. That’s more than half of the 40-car field.

Is it really any wonder, then, that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — a driver who, by all measures, has endured a majorly disappointing career — emerged as the winner?

Of course not.

Stenhouse won the race mainly because he managed to avoid the carnage. Had the race not gone full demolition derby mode at the end, the chances of Stenhouse coming out on top were virtually non-existent.

But I digress. The 2023 Daytona 500 is over now. And until NASCAR makes some changes to its rules regarding green-white-checkered finishes, correctly naming a Daytona 500 winner will be harder than correctly guessing how many grains of sand are on Daytona Beach.

So, with this in mind, I’m waving the white flag on trying to tell anyone who’s going to win this race. If there’s one thing I hate more than being wrong, it’s appearing uneducated or ignorant about a sport I’ve covered since my senior year of college. 

Maybe next year, I’ll just draw a driver’s name out of a hat on the morning of the Daytona 500. Truth be told, it would probably come closer to being right.

Related How Much of the $26.9 Million Daytona 500 Purse Does the 2023 Winner Get?

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