Cody Ware gets ready for a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Cody Ware gets ready for a NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race practice session at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Josh Bilicki has a plan for his first Daytona 500. He wants to ride around with his Rick Ware Racing teammates near the back of the field in an attempt to avoid the inevitable multi-car melee that almost always happens in “The Great American Race.”

Maybe it’s the smart approach.

It’s definitely the conservative one. It also could keep Bilicki out of the crosshairs of some of NASCAR’s top drivers and teams in the season opener Sunday.

“Hopefully, when we’re back there, we don’t have one or two knuckleheads try to race each other because then we can have the big one back there by us,” Bilicki said. “If we can just form a line, and some of our small teams and small cars stay out of the big pack, when the big one happens, hopefully we can just drive around and have a good day.”

Bilicki’s strategy exemplifies the difference between NASCAR’s haves and have-nots, the gap between the front-runners and backmarkers. It’s a seemingly huge hole, too, and makes the Daytona 500 far from a race anyone can win.

Yes, there have been an occasional shocker in stock-car racing’s signature event -- Derrike Cope (1990), Ward Burton (2002) and Trevor Bayne (2011) are the most recent examples -- but more often than not, the Daytona 500 is a playground for the big boys and their well-funded teams.

“In some ways, it makes the racing more compelling and more fun to watch because it’s less predictable when you have less-capable drivers, to some degree,” said Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion who is winless in 11 Daytona 500 starts.

Keselowski remembers watching lower-level, short-track races as and kid and thinking they were the best because “everyone was all over the track.” The chaos wasn’t nearly the same when the pros turned laps because they had more control.

“There’s something to be said for watching the best racecar drivers on the planet,” Keselowski said. “If you look at our fields, the bottom 10 to 15 drivers are probably not what you would consider the best drivers in the world. As a pure competitor, I’d like to see that change.”

It’s unlikely to happen anytime soon because of the struggle to gain sponsorship and financial backing combined with sagging attendance and television ratings. Throw in NASCAR’s changing landscape -- stars like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson have retired in recent years and been replaced by younger, cheaper and less-experienced drivers -- and the racing series clearly has been watered down.

The Daytona 500 entry list doesn't exactly read like a who’s who in racing. Bilicki is joined by a number of unknowns: Quin Houff, Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Kaz Grala, Anthony Alfredo, Cody Ware, Joey Gase, Noah Gragson, Timmy Hill and B.J. McLeod.

They are a combined 0 for 508 in NASCAR’s top series, although Bilicki, Alfredo and Gragson have yet to make their Cup Series debuts.

Kyle Busch made headlines the last two years for ripping lesser-known drivers from underfunded teams. He was painted as an entitled champion driving for an elite team who just wanted a backmarker car to get out of his way. Busch called out Gase and Smithley by name.

“Some of them (idiot) kids don’t know what the hell they’re doing or where they’re at and can’t stay out of the way,” Busch said.

Busch’s criticism highlighted NASCAR’s loose approval process for drivers and caused some of them to band together and stand up for themselves.

“We’re all out there in the same race and they have it a hell of a lot easier than we do,” Gase said. “If they want to switch seats at any point in time, I’d be happy to do that, or if they want to change funding or whatever that might be. …

“There’s only maybe one or two of them out there, and in my opinion, some of those guys are maybe crybabies, like a lot of people would probably agree, and they like to blame other people for not having success.”

For Bilicki and his teammates (Gase, Ware), they believe they’ll be better served staying out of harm's way — which means far from big wrecks and potentially some of the top drivers.

“The Daytona 500 is one of our best shots to have a really good finish,” Bilicki said. “But we need to finish, first, to have a good finish.”