Why the Daytona 500 is so hard to win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The Daytona 500. It’s NASCAR’s version of their Super Bowl. It’s an American tradition etched out of hardwork, passion and innovation. Daytona is a place that defines ones career. It’s the birthplace of speed.

Pick up a Daytona win and you’ll forever be called a “champion.”

Not many races will the winner get labeled as that distinction. At Daytona, you do. A celebration at the World Center of Racing forever changes your life moving forward and places your firmly in a different bracket of racers.

The Daytona 500 is 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.

On Sunday, 40 gladiators will strap into their beasts and know that 200 laps and destiny awaits them at the finish. So what makes Daytona so special?

It’s always been one of the most difficult races to win. As NASCAR has evolved, this race has grown more and more challenging. In the late 50’s, 60s, 70s and 80s, you had more of an open book to where horsepower and handling dictated who won. It was a true test of man vs. machine vs. track.

Now, it’s evolved to more of a lottery. Restrictor plates have completed altered the way that this race has been run. Instead of a small gathering of cars fighting for real estate on this 2.5-mile mammoth of a venue, you have 40 cars all racing inside of a phonebooth.

There’s no margin for error.

As Kyle Busch, a two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, approached the dais Wednesday during DAYTONA 500 Media Day, he noticed a lottery ticket next to the microphone—a leftover item from the earlier announcement of PowerBall as an official NASCAR partner.

“Better chance of winning that than the DAYTONA 500,” Busch quipped, mindful of his 20.24 average finish in the Great American Race.

Busch is one of several big named drivers to have never won the Great American Race.

“Here, a lot of your result can be in the hands of the other drivers around you and the circumstances around you,” Busch said. “That’s just the nature of it, but we all have the same race to go out there and run in.

“As far as being positive about it, yeah, I would be positive about it. Having a new fresh look and outlook with my new team.”

Does the lottery type aspect now of this race dilute the Daytona 500? I mean shouldn’t the winners of stock car’s biggest race be the best ones in the sport?

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?

It can. But it doesn’t.

Credit: DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, crosses the finish line to win during the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It may not be the biggest named drivers winning, but winning this race is a combination of luck and skill. You have to have both and not leave one single aspect out of it.

It’s why names like Terry Labonte (0-for-32), Mark Martin (0-for-29), Ricky Rudd (0-for-29), Rusty Wallace (0-for-23) and Tony Stewart (0-for-17) raced their entire careers and never celebrated glory on President’s Day weekend on Florida’s east coast.

I mean wouldn’t winning the lottery or a very large prize in a once-in-a-million way feel a whole hell of a lot sweeter than doing so on dominance?

That randomness and unexpectedness nature of Daytona now can bring a grown man to his knees in joy.

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 back 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 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.”

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.

As the great Rick Mears once said, “in order to finish first you first must finish.” If you’re still around in the closing laps at Daytona, you bet your rear end that you’re going to do everything possible to end up in victory lane. I mean, you may never have another chance of doing so.

“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.”

Keselowski says that because of the lottery type event that this has become, if you’re still around in the end, you have to take the necessary risks to ensure that you’re in the best position to win this thing. If you don’t, you may be second guessing yourself for the rest of your life.

Which is why as the laps click down, 10 to go, 9 to go, 8 to go, 7 to go, these drivers inside these race cars get antsy. The heart pumps faster, the brain is on overdrive, your palms get sweaty, your muscle weaken, you tense up. This is the Daytona 500 and the victory is in sights.

6 to go. 5 to go. You almost forget you’re traveling in a pack over 180 mph, you have cars on either side of you, you’re also trying to plan your move because if you win this race, you’ll forever be known as a Daytona 500 champion. This is what is going to define you.

4 to go.

3 to go.

Got to make your move. This is why it’s tough to see the checkered flag. Others are making moves too. Are they the right ones?

2 to go.

White flag.

Moves have to be made in desperation. Whether it’s yourself, or someone else, it has to be done.

Joey Logano has always been one of the top drivers at Daytona and Talladega. Thursday night was his third Duel win in the last five years. As far as what makes him so great, he said that speedway racing has evolved over the years and you absolutely have to evolve with it. However, by doing so, it takes a lot of work to be good here. How much effort are drivers willing to put into this style of racing?

“I don’t think anybody at Penske looks at speedway racing as a luck thing,” Logano says. “Sometimes you just have bad placement.

“But the majority of it is if you can control some things or you can keep yourself towards the front — if you get wrecked in the front, you get wrecked in the front. Like what are you going to do?

“But I think you can still put yourself up there with doing things correctly. I mean, Blaney is part of those conversations when it was the three of us then.”

The two-time Cup Series champion says that what also helps him in the learning process are his teammates and how each of their styles are different, but you can combine all into one and have a great plan on what to do right.

“Now everybody has like their own style,” he says. “Like Blaney’s style out there is significantly different than mine and what I’m willing to do compared to what he’s willing to do. We drive our cars two completely different ways in the draft, which Brad and I probably were a little bit more alike in the draft, which worked out really well.

“But Blaney has done a great job at finishing up front and winning these things, as well. There’s more than one way to do this, and Blaney has kind of found his way that works for him.

“Knowing that, that kind of fits into the recipe of how we’re going to figure this whole thing out together. So as Austin and Harrison are able to get more laps out there, learn about the draft, learn the things they want to do, they’re good students of the game, too, they’re listening well and doing their own studies and those type of things.

“The game is not as simple as it used to be. It evolves. It evolves so quickly. This draft is never the same two races in a row, no matter if the rules are different or the same. It never is the same from one week to the next.”

Checkered flag. If you’re around to see it, you’re likely celebrating a win. If you’re not, you’re probably mentally and physically taxed and counting down the days until the next time to join racing’s lore.

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 Austin Cindric (2022).

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.

Does this hurt the cause for the Daytona 500 winners fraternity? Not necessarily. A Daytona winner is as deserving as anywhere because of what you had to endure to get through 500 miles of racing.

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