Michael Waltrip proved last year that when the stars align perfectly, anything can happen.
Some might say that when a driver hooks up with the right team and the cohesion is there, even someone with a 462-race losing streak, such as Waltrip, can win NASCAR's most precious jewel, the Daytona 500.
Waltrip's victory was nonetheless a stunner, albeit a pleasant one. And there were some other pleasant, but more predictable, surprises.
In Sterling Marlin's fourth season in the No. 40 car, he became the Dodge boys' standout driver and maintained his top-five status on the Winston Cup leader board for the majority of the season.
Ricky Rudd, who turned 45 last season, continued to prove his staying power in his second season in the No. 28 Robert Yates Ford.
And then there was rookie Kevin Harvick, who came out of nowhere and had a sparkling year.
There's no telling who will have surprisingly successful seasons, but here are five drivers worth watching:
1. Jeremy Mayfield. He's more determined than ever to make a new start with owner Ray Evernham in the No. 19 Dodge. There's no doubt Evernham Motorsports can provide the equipment. The team just needed a hungry, young driver, and that's where Mayfield fits in.
Mayfield posted three career victories at Penske Racing but was in constant competition with teammate Rusty Wallace. At Evernham's, Mayfield will be the alpha dog, capable of writing his own ticket.
Crew chief Sammy Johns joined the staff in August, so he has had time to get accustomed to the routine. Expect Evernham to take a more active role now that Lou Patane is assisting on the business end. Mayfield has been given a second chance. Now it's up to him to make the most of it.
2. Jimmy Spencer. The enthusiasm in Spencer's voice is evident when he speaks of the opportunity he has with his new team, Ganassi Racing. He knows how his teammate Marlin benefited from the resources Ganassi provides, and Spencer is eager to get started.
Spencer already has observed the two-car, one-team concept at the shop. With team manager Tony Glover's ability to get the most out of a restrictor-plate car, expect the sparks to fly at Daytona.
Spencer is reunited with Doug Randolph, who was a crew member at Junior Johnson's when Spencer captured his only two career wins, in 1994. Randolph, who'll be Spencer's crew chief, was an innovator at Bill Davis Racing, and with a more seasoned vet such as Spencer, he should have a chance to further display his potential.
Spencer finished 16th in points last year. This year, he'll finish in the top 10.
3. Jerry Nadeau. Last year, the wind was stolen from his team's sails when crew chief Tony Furr received a four-week suspension for a rules infraction during qualifying for the Daytona 500. The team never recovered, but it came close to winning, especially at Atlanta, where Nadeau ran out of gas coming off the final corner of the NAPA 500.
There were other times when Nadeau's No. 25 Chevrolet was the dominant car but experienced a mechanical failure. Six accidents and an engine failure prevented Nadeau from making major gains in points.
Nadeau's car owner, Hendrick Motorsports, gives each team equal equipment, so it's the personnel that distinguishes one crew from the next. Furr is a competent manager and a clever mechanic. With assistance from Ed Guzzo, the team seemed to turn the corner in the second half of last season.
But Nadeau thinks he could use more engineers and specialists, and the team recently hired David Lovendahl away from Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car to handle shocks. No one questions Nadeau's dedication, but a few deep breaths and some patience could be the difference between the 25 car pulling into the winner's circle or back into the trailer.
4. Kenny Wallace. The youngest of the racing Wallace brothers knows that he is experiencing the ride of a lifetime as a fill-in for Steve Park, who suffered a bruised brain in a Busch Series wreck in September. Car owner Dale Earnhardt Inc. has some of the best equipment and resources, and even though Wallace is not quite ready to win a title, this team definitely is capable of winning races.
Wallace's relationship with crew chief Paul Andrews dates to brother Rusty's early racing days in St. Louis, so there is no question that the two communicate well. More than that, this is a team that has fun racing.
Andrews joined DEI in May 1999, and before Park's accident, the No. 1 Chevrolet was 10th in points. Park won the first Rockingham race in 2001, and Wallace won the pole and finished second in the fall race.
It's just a matter of Wallace getting acclimated to DEI's program. His cars are as competitive as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s; it will be up to the driver to make the difference.
Wallace received a one-year contract shortly after he filled in for Park in the Southern 500, and he will have a ride even when Park returns.
5. Mike Skinner. Johnny Benson and Skinner may be the best Winston Cup drivers who haven't won a race. But Skinner will leave that description behind this year with Morgan-McClure.
Things could have been different for Skinner at Richard Childress Racing if Kevin Hamlin had remained as his crew chief. But that's a moot point.
What we do know about Skinner is he's a heck of a superspeedway driver, and with the No. 4 car's stellar record on restrictor-plate tracks, Skinner could have his breakout win in the Daytona 500.
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