Another 1st Time Winner? (4 in the Last 6 Years)
The pay window was open and Michael McDowell cashed in on the final lap of the 63rd annual Daytona 500. A 66-1 betting line made him an underdog winner by definition. He’s a deserving winner though and one that should be applauded. McDowell has always been a good superspeedway racer and always on the cusp of victory on them.
Last year, Austin Cindric was 30-1 and he prevailed. That’s four first time Daytona 500 winners in the last six years. Now in saying that, does this win tarnish the Daytona 500 a bit or instead do the opposite — make it even greater?
Case for Tarnish
In the case of tarnishing it, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s Super Bowl. It’s their biggest race of the year. It’s an event to where legends of the sport are made. You have Petty, Earnhardt, Allison, Yarborough, Jarrett, Waltrip, Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, etc all as winners. But, do fluke winners dilute this star studded list?
A Daytona 500 champion should be a special class of drivers. It’s like the Hall of Fame. You don’t just let anyone in that fraternity. Does the somewhat recent nature of what some consider fluke winners dilute this?
Out of the 64 year history of this race, we’ve had just nine drivers now earn their first career Cup win in it. Four of those nine in the last six years.
Really, this all was predicated by the restrictor plate era. There were only nine drivers combined between the ‘500 and the ‘400 to notch their first career Cup victories at the World Center of Racing prior to the restricted air on these cars. There’s been 13 in the 34 years since, with three now coming in the last four seasons.
The thing is, out of the 22 first time Cup winners to occur in Daytona, 13 of which occurred during the ‘400. For the Daytona 500, the list is just Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994), Michael Waltrip (2001), Trevor Bayne (2011), Michael McDowell (2021) and Cindric.
Lund, Andretti and Hamilton would make names for themselves. Hamilton only made 64 career Cup starts but he won four of them. Lund and Andretti don’t require further assessment.
Cope stole a win in 1990. He’d only win twice in 428 career Cup starts. Bayne, won in just his second career start in 2011 but hasn’t won in the 185 starts since. Waltrip, was 0-for-462 before his triumph. He did win another Daytona 500 and look vastly improved with DEI than he was before. Then you get McDowell who was 0-for-357 prior to his triumph.
Cindric was just 0-for-7.
Austin Dillon scored his second career victory in the Daytona 500. Kurt Busch earned his first and only superspeedway win a year prior.
Does this hurt the cause for the Daytona 500 winners fraternity? The races are being won by a more random nature than skill. My question is, does this dilute it?
“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500,” Alex Bowman said. “Obviously we’ve had some other superspeedway success, and we want to win this deal. This is the Daytona 500. Everybody wants to win this deal. We’ve just got to get through the whole race. We just haven’t been able to get through the whole race, and it hasn’t ever really been our fault. We’ve always had great driving race cars, fast race cars, led laps, but just got to get to the end. I feel like if we do that we’re going to have a shot at it.
“But yeah, it’s a really hard race to win. So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well, and it’s hard. It’s tough to do.”
Brad Keselowski has seven points paying superspeedway wins, most among all drivers. He’s 0-for-13 in this race.
“That’s been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said in 2019. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times. We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.
“Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race. For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.
“It’s probably kept us from winning it at least once or twice because, like I said earlier, I think we’ve had the car to do it. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so hard to win, the attrition factor, just surviving it to begin with.
“Again, of course, it is a difficult racetrack. This time of year, Florida is a lot hotter than most parts of North America, but this time of year it seems to be one of those racetracks that you practice and you qualify, then the race day, for whatever reason, the track temp goes way up, the cars slide around a lot more, chaos ensues. Trying to survive to the end for me is the biggest part.
“The races we have survived till the end, we have ran really well and been in a position to win. Hopefully that’s the case for us this year. I feel confident if I can be there at the end, we can win the race.”
Kyle Busch is 0-for-17. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-18. Kyle Larson is 0-for-9.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said in 2020.
Four of the last seven years saw the winner lead only one lap, the final one. Five of the last seven have seen a last lap pass for the win too. As Denny Hamlin said after last year’s race, he was “too far out front.”
He had the fastest car by a mile. He has the most skill in the field. He led 98 laps. Since when in racing is being too far in the lead a bad thing?
It is in superspeedway races though. You need drafting help to win them.
Also, does NASCAR wish that they didn’t throw the yellow out so quick a year ago now? Yes, it was a scary crash and I get the notion to throw the yellow out once we saw flames and chaos. In hindsight, everyone was okay and if the yellow doesn’t fly, Chase Elliott likely wins this race.
Doesn’t the defending series champion and three-time defending Most Popular Driver winning the Great American Race punch more weight than McDowell?
If the answer is yes, then doesn’t that answer the question of this topic? This is one of the only four races on the schedule to where literally everyone can win. Does that now deserve the praise of the biggest race if that’s the case?
The Case For It Adding To The Prestige
This piece is to just make you think so there’s no right or wrong answer to this. But, I can also make a case to where McDowell’s 2021 heroics and Cindric’s last year add to the Daytona 500 lore too. The randomness nature of speedway racing makes winning here feel like you hit the lottery. That too can lead to an overwhelming feeling of joy because imagine your feeling if you did in fact hit the lottery personally.
That plus the race being dubbed the Daytona 500 gives you a large sense of joy. The fact that anyone can win this race and you have to be more lucky than anything else makes this overwhelmingly tougher to win. The four superspeedway races are the toughest races to win on the schedule as a result. Shouldn’t that punch weight too?
This race should be hard to win. It’s the biggest race. It shouldn’t be easy. That’s also why these wins should be praised. It shows how difficult it is to win here. The top drivers aren’t guaranteed a win and the levels the playing field for everyone.
Doesn’t that hold some merit?
Some of the greats have never won this race. It took Earnhardt 20 years of trying. Waltrip took almost two decades himself. Terry Labone finished 0-for-32. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Mark Martin was 0-for-29. Tony Stewart ended 0-for-17. These are Hall of Famers.
Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-18 now. Kyle Busch is 0-for-17 and Brad Keselowski 0-for-13.
This club doesn’t just let anyone in is the point.
“I think ‘wild card’ is a bit gimmicky because it’s not really true, but it is to some extent,” Denny Hamlin said. “We’ve seen a lot of first-time winners here which has all been really legit. I wouldn’t say Michael McDowell was a wild card winner because if you look at previous races, he’d been in the top 10 or top five pretty consistently. It wasn’t really an out of the blue shot there. But, in general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls. Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better. We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”
That’s why this is an interesting topic and I’m curious which side of the fence the race fans are on.
Can Hendrick Motorsports turn qualifying success into race success at Daytona
I’ve written in each of the last three years now on if Hendrick Motorsports could finally turn those starting spots into some Daytona 500 success. Unfortunately, they still haven’t.
William Byron and Alex Bowman were collected in the Lap 62 crash on the backstretch a year ago. Byron, would finish 38th while Bowman limped home 24th, four laps down.
Then, both Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott were each part of that Lap 190 crash with Larson finishing 32nd and Elliott continuing on to 10th.
The thing is, Hendrick Motorsports has seen this script before. Last year, they dominated on qualifying day for the upcoming Daytona 500….again
It was the eighth time HMS has swept the front row for the annual season opening race, three of which occurring in the last four years now and half of them occurring since 2017.
They’ve truly been a force early on during the annual February trip to the World Center of Speed. Since 2013, they’ve won six Duels as well to go along with seven poles in the last eight years.
The thing is, they’ve not won NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl in that time frame either. Their last Daytona victory came in 2014, a year prior to this streak beginning.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove his No. 88 Chevrolet into victory lane following a lengthy rain delay that 2014 night, never in a million years did I not expect HMS to be back over the next seven years.
The finishing positions of the HMS pole winners since this streak began in 2015?
33rd, 37th, 14th, 17th, 21st, 35th and 32nd respectively. The second place starters when they’ve started there?
5th, 37th, 11th, 24th, 26th and 24th respectively.
Will this year be different?
Well, last year was supposed to be different. Same with the year before. 2021 was supposed to be the time that Hendrick Motorsports flexed their muscles for the entire Daytona Speedweeks. They said all the right things at least.
They were going to come down here with a vengeance. With a similar package to the one the year prior, they knew that the speed would be there for qualifying.
They decided to spend extra time between the 2020 Daytona 500 and the 2021 edition on working on their “race” cars. Following years of good alone speed but bad handling cars in the draft, they’ve massaged them the best that they could to bring down four really good hot rods to the 2.5-mile oval.
“We definitely focused a lot on qualifying,” said crew chief Greg Ives during that year’s Speedweeks. Securing the front row is a big deal.
“For the Daytona 500 for us it’s a marquee race that you want to get the pole. There’s obviously a special reason why first and second are locked into the race.”
Bowman even said the right things that year too.
“Yeah, for me it’s been an interesting couple years driving for HMS in the 500 obviously from the front row every year, have had extremely fast race cars,” Bowman said of no wins despite good starting spots for this race. “It’s like we make it through every crash until that last one. We go all day, we miss crashes that we probably shouldn’t miss, and then a crash that we probably should miss we get caught up in.
“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500. Obviously we’ve had some other superspeedway success, and we want to win this deal. This is the Daytona 500. Everybody wants to win this deal. We’ve just got to get through the whole race. We just haven’t been able to get through the whole race, and it hasn’t ever really been our fault. We’ve always had great driving race cars, fast race cars, led laps, but just got to get to the end. I feel like if we do that we’re going to have a shot at it.
“But yeah, it’s a really hard race to win. So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well, and it’s hard. It’s tough to do.
“It’s hard to do no matter where you start. I don’t think any of our previous 500 runs have really even been influenced from where we start, so just got to get to the end, and if we do that, I know we’ll have a chance.”
Chase Elliott says that while the speed in qualifying is nice, his main focus is on the race itself.
“I would much rather win on Sunday, personally,” Elliott said during Media Day activities prior to qualifying on Wednesday. “I think anybody on our team would tell you the same. I feel like we’ve always had fast cars down here. Speedway racing has never been overlooked at HMS; and Alan (Gustafson, Crew Chief) does a really good job of massaging and really paying attention to all the details that I feel like it takes to be good here. I feel like that’s shown over the course of my time with him and even going back before me. There’s been a lot of success there. I do think it’s an area where they put a lot of emphasis and put a lot of work into the cars, but we all want to win on Sunday more than anything.
“I don’t think you have to qualify well to be really good on Sunday or even to have a shot to win.”
Elliott, says that he feels like it’s easy to kind of overlook the speedways, just because there’s so few of them but he thinks that across the garage, that probably does happen some amongst some of the other teams.
In saying that, HMS spends a lot of time on this because of the value to being on the front row here at Daytona for exposure.
“But I think for us, it’s been a great opportunity to give our sponsors some great exposure and to me, that’s probably the biggest piece of value of qualifying well here,” he continued. “For NAPA, they’ve had the chance twice now to be on the front page of the paper down here and kind of be the headline leading into the Daytona 500, which I think has value and I don’t see how they couldn’t see that as value, too. So our team does a good job of putting themselves in a position where our partners can take advantage of the start of our year.”
At one point Hendrick Motorsports was the top team on restrictor plate tracks in general. At Talladega, they had 6 wins in an 8 race span. They’ve won just 4 of the 30 Talladega races since with Chase Elliott’s spring race win in 2019 and Fall race win a year ago being their only trips to victory lane there since this Fall race in 2015.
For Daytona, Hendrick Motorsports is tied with the Wood Brothers for most wins there in the NASCAR Cup Series. Each have 15. Both have also won those 15 races with 7 different drivers. However, HMS’ once dominance prowess has since cooled at the World Center of Racing too. They won 11 races between 1995 and 2015. In fact, 7 of those 11 occurred from July 2004 and July 2015. They’ve won the Coke Zero Sugar 400 race 6 times.
Since 2016 there, they have just 1 win. What’s bizarre is, it’s not like they’ve not shown up down here without speed. They’ve arguably had the fastest cars off the truck. It’s just that they’ve not had race day speed to correlate with race day handling.
Same Guys Asking If They’re Ever Going To Win Next Year Too
We keep coming into Speedweeks asking when Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. are ever going to win at Daytona 500. I mean, there’s a lot of successful drivers in this sport that never did.
Even the greats take years to accomplish a win in the Great American Race while some never do it. Terry Labonte was 0-for-32. Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd each 0-for-29. Bobby Labonte was 0-for-24. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Tony Stewart (0-for-17), Carl Edwards (0-for-12) and Ned Jarrett (0-for-7) never won either.
Now, after a second straight year of a first time winner in this race and fourth in a six year span, the same grouping will get asked that question again during this year’s Speedweeks.
Elliott, has won last five Most Popular Driver awards to go along with a 2020 championship and third straight Championship 4 appearance last November in Phoenix.
The good? He was runner-up in the 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400, runner-up in the 2020 Daytona 500, 8th in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400 400, 10th in this last year’s Daytona 500 to go along with 6th in Atlanta 1, 7th in Talladega 1 and a win in Atlanta 2 and Talladega 2 last year. The bad? He has finished 30th or worse in almost half of his 12 Daytona starts. In fact, he’s been 14th or worse in all but two starts. Elliott’s other Daytona 500 finishes are – 37th, 14th, 33rd, 17th, 17th and 10th respectively. .
Larson and Truex are the same on superspeedway’s. Larson is now 1-for-35 in career top five’s on superspeedway’s and has led just a total of 31 laps on them. He was 32nd and 37th at Daytona last year.
Truex, is 0-for-18. Yes, he swept both stages back in February of last year, but he also still finished 13th too in doing so. He’s 0-for-73 in drafting races if you include both Atlanta events last season and has scored just 6 top 5’s in those 73 starts. He has 3 top 5’s in 35 Daytona tries at that.
Busch, is 0-for-17 now. He’s finished 33rd or worse in three of his last five Daytona points paying starts. He’s also only had one top five here since 2017 too and only three of his 17 starts in the Great American Race being in the top five.
While leading on Lap 180 in 2020’s edition, his car started having problems. A lap later, Busch said his engine blew and would slowly ride around the track. That was partially a blessing in disguise as he avoided the Lap 183 “Big One” two laps later.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said that year.
He was sixth last year and has now led the most laps (324) of all drivers who’ve never won the ‘500.
12 of his 17 Daytona 500 starts have seen him finish 14th or worse.
For Keselowski, he’s 0-for-13. What’s strange about that is, Keselowski is known as one of the better superspeedway racers in the series. His seven wins on them rank him first among all active drivers right now. If things go his way and he avoids the “big ones” and can be there in the end, he most certainly would be pushing double digits in the win column. But, he’s still winless in the biggest race of the year.
Jimmie Johnson Leads Talented Group Of Open Drivers
Jimmie Johnson is back. After a two-year hiatus to run INDYCAR’s, Johnson will return to NASCAR to run an open car for the team he also owns, Legacy Auto Club. Johnson is tied for most championships (7) and has 83 trips to victory lane including twice in the Daytona 500. Can he pick up a third?
This will mark his 20th start if he can race his way in. Which is a shocking factor on it’s own. Johnson joins Travis Pastrana, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith, Conor Daly and Austin Hill on the open car list.
4 of them will make it. 2 of them won’t.
Smith is the defending Truck Series champion and won last year’s Truck season opener on the Daytona high banks. Hill won the Xfinity Series season opener a day later. Throw in Austin Cindric, who is locked in, and you get all three Speedweeks winners back in 2023 but all also on the Cup entry-list.
The open list is going to garner a lot of attention during Speedweeks.
Anticipation High For Sold Out Event
When NASCAR throws the green flag for the 65th running of the DAYTONA 500 on Sunday, it will be in front of a packed house as Daytona International Speedway announced last month that all grandstand seating and camping is sold out for the NASCAR Cup Series opener. The sellout is the eighth consecutive for The Great American Race.
“Our fans know there’s nothing better in sports than attending the DAYTONA 500 and they will help us kick off NASCAR’s 75th Anniversary by filling the facility,” said Daytona International Speedway President Frank Kelleher. “We will have a week of great racing and there are still so many opportunities for fans to come out to the track and be a part of the action during Speedweeks Presented By AdventHealth.”
Grandstand tickets are also available for the remaining Speedweeks Presented By AdventHealth events, which give fans a chance to see all three NASCAR national series and the ARCA Menards Series:
- Wednesday, Feb. 15 – DAYTONA 500 Qualifying Presented by Busch Light determines the front row for Sunday’s race
- Thursday, Feb. 16 – Bluegreen Vacations Duel races set the field for the DAYTONA 500
- Friday, Feb. 17 – NextEra Energy 250 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race
- Saturday, Feb. 18 – Doubleheader featuring the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner 300 and ARCA Menards Series 200
The sellout comes on the heels of one of the most competitive seasons in NASCAR history, which featured a record-tying 19 different race winners in the debut season for the Next Gen car. Last year’s DAYTONA 500 featured the season’s closest finish as Austin Cindric posted a 0.036-second margin of victory over Bubba Wallace.
All three races last year saw someone sweep both stages. Neither of the three drivers won.
John Hunter Nemechek did in Fridays NextEra Energy 250 but was caught up in that crash coming to the white flag. He’d finish 24th.
Daniel Hemric did the same in Saturdays Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300. He crashed on the white flag lap and finished…28th.
Truex last year was 13th.