Jimmie Johnson looks on in the garage area during the NASCAR Project 56 Test at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 2023 ; Bubba Wallace exits in his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum
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5 Drivers Who Will Defy Expectations at the Daytona 500

We all know the big storylines coming into the 2023 Daytona 500. Denny Hamlin is gunning for his fourth victory at the "Great American Race," while Kevin Harvick is kicking off his final full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series. Kyle Busch, despite never having won a Daytona 500, is an early favorite to hoist the Harley J. Earl trophy in his first season with Richard Childress Racing. Then, you've got Joey Logano, who just won a championship, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, who will be looking to continue their dominant streaks for Hendrick Motorsports, and Ross Chastain, who will have a watermelon-sized target on his back following his wildly successful, yet controversy-ridden, 2022 season.

These are the drivers everyone will be watching when NASCAR heads to Daytona Beach, Florida this upcoming weekend for the 65th running of the Daytona 500. But, what about the under-the-radar drivers? The ones who most fans aren't really expecting to rock the boat too much? Everyone loves a good sleeper. A good underdog story. But, it's hard to make predictions on any NASCAR race, let alone on a race like the Daytona 500, where it seems like almost literally anything can happen (although, the occurrence of "the Big One" is pretty much a guarantee). Don't worry, though: we went out on a limb, so you don't have to, and came up with the five NASCAR drivers who will defy expectations at the inaugural Cup race at Daytona International Speedway.

A.J. Allmendinger

A.J. Allmendinger speaks to the media prior to practice for the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum on February 04, 2023

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A.J. Allmendinger knows all too well about second chances. His first major career speed bump came all the way back in 2012 due to a several-month-long drug suspension that practically derailed his season and seriously set him back in the eyes of NASCAR fans. Now, the 41-year-old Los Gatos, California native is coming off another career hiatus, albeit a much longer one. When Allmendinger steps inside the driver's seat of the No. 16 Chevy for Kaulig Racing, it will mark his first full-time Cup ride since 2018.

Allmendinger seems poised to make the most of his new chapter in the Cup Series. In fact, just last week, he told the Daytona-Beach News Journal, "Every opportunity I get now, I don't take for granted."

Admittedly, Allmendinger doesn't necessarily thrive on superspeedways. He's more suited to road course racing at tracks like Indianapolis and Las Vegas. So, the Daytona 500 will present somewhat of a challenge to his racing style. Still, it's a challenge he's used to. And, with two top-three finishes at the Daytona 500 under his belt, it's definitely not out of the question for him to finish inside the top-10 this year. Of course, A.J. wouldn't be a true Cup competitor if he didn't visualize himself actually coming away with the victory at Daytona.

"To be a Daytona 500 champion is something truly special and I'd love to be a part of that history," Allmendinger said. "I feel so fortunate I get to race this race again. I'll be the first to admit, I hate superspeedway racing, but it's the Daytona 500 and you lay it on the line and that's what it is."

"This is the granddaddy of them all. It's one of the biggest races in the world and yeah, I'd love to win it."

Bubba Wallace

Bubba Wallace speaks to the media prior to the 2023 NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum

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There are a number of NASCAR fans who seem almost eager to discount Bubba Wallace, whether for invalid reasons (Bubba's race) or valid ones (his inconsistent racing and tendency to get into needless on-track altercations). But, if there's one thing that Bubba loves more than racing, it's silencing the haters. It's what he did when he won his first Cup race in 2021 at Talladega, becoming the first Black driver to win a Cup Series race since Wendell Scott in 1963. It's what he did when he won the race at Kansas last year. And, it's what he did when he placed second at the 2018 and 2022 Daytona 500s.

Given his recent track record (pun intended) at the "World Center of Racing," Wallace has the best chance of the drivers on this list to win the Daytona 500 this year. On top of that, Denny Hamlin, his boss at 23XI Racing, expects big things of Wallace this year. On an episode of his podcast Actions Detrimental, Denny said that he thinks Bubba will make the playoffs and finish top 12 in the points. No time like the present to live up to the boss's goals.

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson prepares to drive during the NASCAR Project 56 Test at Daytona International Speedway on January 31, 2023

Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

It may seem weird to put a driver with seven Cup Series championships and 83 Cup wins in the "defying expectations" category, but even Jimmie Johnson himself would admit that he's way past his prime. Still, the two-time Daytona 500 winner's return to Cup competition following his retirement in 2020 has created an electric atmosphere in NASCAR's highest level, as it marks the comeback of a legend and the sport's arguable GOAT.

Now, putting Jimmie on this list may to prove to be a moot point even before Sunday, as the 47-year-old future Hall of Famer still has to qualify for the Daytona 500, since he's not driving one of the 36 chartered entries. There are four available spots for non-chartered drivers and six drivers competing for them (Johnson's competitors include Chandler Smith, Zane Smith, Conor Daly, Austin Hill, and Travis Pastrana). So, there's a chance he misses the race altogether.

That said, Johnson is only competing in a limited number of races this year (the only other confirmed Cup race on his schedule is the Chicago Street Race), and the Daytona 500 is undoubtedly the most prestigious of the races that he'll compete in. So, it's probably safe to say that he'll be pushing himself to come out and make his statement at, as Allmendinger calls it, "the granddaddy of them all." For all you believers in superstition out there, Johnson will also be driving the No. 84 Chevy for Legacy Motor Club, the rebranded Petty GMS Motorsports team that he now co-owns with Richard Petty. The number clearly has significance for Johnson and indicates that he'll be looking to add one final Cup win to his resume.

"Go back to my childhood racing days, the No. 4 and the No. 8 have always been significant numbers for me," Johnson told Fox Sports. "Looking at the list at what was available, 84 is on there and they are two numbers I can't live without. So 84 it is. It was more of a secondary, kind of nod, I have 83 wins and looking for 84 wins in the 84 car added another layer to why we did it."

Ty Gibbs

Ty Gibbs walks the grid prior to the 2023 NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum on February 05, 2023

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

To say that Ty Gibbs' first full-time season in the Cup Series will be an emotional one would be an understatement. He's coming off his first championship in the Xfinity Series and the death of his father Coy Gibbs, who passed away unexpectedly the night of Ty's big title win. Given everything that happened to him in 2022, Gibbs' dark horse potential is certainly appealing. And, considering Austin Cindric's Daytona 500 win last year (which made him just the second rookie behind Trevor Bayne in 2011 to win the big race), the stage is set for Gibbs to pull off the big upset at Daytona.

The 20-year-old Cup rookie will have plenty to prove this year at Joe Gibbs Racing, and shaking off the whole grandson-of-the-owner, silver-spoon image may prove challenging. But, he'll also have the perfect teammates in his corner, with vets Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. and rising star Christopher Bell there to help him find his footing. Plus, given the unpredictable nature of the Daytona 500, underdogs tend to thrive there, and Ty Gibbs is about as big an underdog as you can get.

Zane Smith

Zane Smith outside of car during BMW M Endurance Challenge on January 27 at Daytona International Speedway

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Like Jimmie Johnson, Zane Smith still has to fight for a qualifying spot in this year's Daytona 500. But, unlike the seven-time champion, the 23-year-old Smith is a relative unknown in the NASCAR Cup Series. Last year's Craftsman Truck Series champion will be competing part-time in the Cup Series, driving for Front Row Motorsports. He only has a single Cup race under his belt, having replaced RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher at last year's June race at Gateway after Buescher tested positive at COVID-19.

While it's tough to stand behind any definitive prediction when it comes to Daytona 500 results (again, given the event's wild-card appeal), anyone would be fine to confidently maintain that Zane Smith won't be winning this year's regular-season-starting race. But, Smith could very well qualify and record an unexpected performance. He'll be in that sweet spot of coming into this year's Cup season with enough confidence (considering his 2022 Truck title and the exciting, and frankly shocking, opportunity to split a Cup ride with Todd Gilliland at FRM), while also having the luxury of fairly minimal expectations. That combination could produce surprising results at Daytona.

MORE: David Pearson's Battle With Richard Petty at the 1976 Daytona 500 Led to the Greatest Finish in NASCAR History