The list of Daytona 500 winners includes such unlikely names as Derrike Cope, Geoff Bodine and Ernie Irvan.
There is no chance that any of those three — or for that matter other former winners like a Ward Burton, a Jamie McMurray or a Michael Waltrip — will ever be mentioned in any conversation about induction into the NASCAR hall of fame.
Yet some of the most successful drivers in the history of stock car racing — like Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip — took as long as 20 years before they had their names added to the winner’s list of the Great American Race.
Then there was last season when a just-turned-20-years-old Trevor Bayne won the 500 on his first try.
In Sunday’s field there is Tony Stewart, the winner of 17 other races at Daytona International Speedway, yet still skunked after 13 years of trying to win NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
Stewart isn’t the only top driver among today’s crop of NASCAR stars that are O-for their careers at the 2.5 mile superspeedway in February.
Kyle Busch has won more NASCAR races in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series than anyone over the past five seasons and he hasn’t had a sniff at Daytona.
The same goes for his older brother Kurt, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, who only has a runner-up cheque to show for his nearly decade and a half of running at Daytona.
Stewart, who laments to this day that he never won the Indianapolis 500 in his IndyCar career despite winning an open wheel championship, said that he can’t quite understand why a win in the Daytona 500 continues to elude him.
“I mean, there’s just something magical about Daytona,” he said. “Just like in IndyCar racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indy 500 is the same way.”
What he thinks is a big part of it is that drivers and teams have so long to prepare for the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500, they may just over-prepare, if that is possible.
“When it’s the most important race of your season, especially the first one, all the drivers and all the teams and all the crews put more pressure on themselves for that one race than they do anywhere else the rest of the year,” Stewart said.
He said that with that much lead time to work on the car and the fact that Daytona is a restrictor plate race, where NASCAR mandates that all cars have pretty much the same horsepower, it makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chafe.
“Especially at a place where the draft is so important, you don’t get away from each other,” Stewart said. “It really brings everybody into the fold and everybody has a shot at winning this race.”
Kevin Harvick, who is also among the best of the current drivers, won his only Daytona 500 in 2007 driving the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
He agrees with Stewart that maybe drivers just over-think what it takes to win here.
“For whatever reason, this particular race; and I think it is just the anticipation leading up to it and the emotions that everybody runs through that just creates a lot of things happening that don’t happen at normal races because it’s not a normal race,” Harvick said.
He said that emotions run so high in the week leading up to the race that even the world’s best stock car drivers get caught up in the moment and make mistakes that they might not make at any other race on the calendar.
“The Daytona 500 is our biggest race,” he said. “You see a lot of strange things happen, and the race is much like the week; you can get excited; you can get caught up in somebody else’s mess; you can cause a mess.”
Harvick hopes that he will be able to keep those emotions in check when the green flag drops on Sunday afternoon and maybe he can win his second big trophy.
“Those high emotions tend to make things happen,” he said. “I think you have to learn to keep those emotions as low as possible until the end, so you can keep yourself around and be there when it counts.
“It seems like when they drop the green flag, we all think it counts right off the bat, and it just causes some crazy situations.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the 500 in 2004, and is acknowledged as one of the best restrictor plate racers ever, said that you can analyze it until the cows come home and it will still come down to simply being in the right place at the right time on the final lap.
“I still feel like so many people in the field have a chance to win,” he said. “Anyone in the top 35 cars are capable of winning the race and you never know who is going to come off Turn 4 battling for the lead and whether you will be in that mix or not.”