DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—A Daytona 500 victory can make a career.
While there are plenty of Cup drivers who have gone on to enjoy Hall of Fame status without winning the Great American Race—Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, to name a few—a 500 victory provides life-long gravitas and even job security for anyone with a Harley J. Earl trophy.
And having won once, lessens the pressure entering each subsequent 500.
“As far as knowing you won one, it definitely helps especially for me,” said 2018 victor Austin Dillon. “I enjoy this Sunday more than any other Sunday of the year. Waking up and just breathing the air on Sunday morning is my favorite race because of the hype that goes into it and the build-up.
“It feels like that Super Bowl moment, it feels like Masters, because everybody’s eyes are on you and it’s our sport’s day. I can’t wait every year for this and I cherish that and try to have a good race.”
For drivers outside the Daytona 500 fraternity, the constant nagging and reminders of what was lost loom large. Kyle Busch is 0-14 in the season opener. Although he finished second to Denny Hamlin last year, no one ever remembers the runner-up.
“You know, me not being able to win the Daytona 500 isn't something that's going to kill me, but it's certainly going to weigh on me in the late goings of a race to try to get out there and win this thing,” Busch said. “We were so close last year. There was just a couple of different instances that—different circumstances could have made a whole different day, and we wouldn't be having this discussion this year.
“But you know, it is what it is. We'll go out there this year and see if we can't give it the same shot we gave it last year."
Busch, 34, is already a first-ballot Hall of Famer. With two Cup titles and 56 wins, he doesn’t have to worry about his status in the sport. What likely eats at the champion more is the fact that his brother Kurt, the 2017 Daytona 500 winner, has something the younger Busch doesn’t—a Harley J. Earl trophy.
There are a lot of greats that haven’t (won), but I would definitely not want to be on that list if I had my way,” Busch added. “But you don't always have your way, especially in restrictor-plate racing with just how random it is.
“Years ago, I would say probably ‑‑ man, '85, '87 maybe or earlier, you know, it was way more skill, car, equipment, driver, that sort of stuff, but with the restrictor plate stuff, it's been way more random and unexpected.”
Busch is one of just three Cup champions in the field today still searching for their first Daytona 500 win. Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex are on the list as well.
Keselowski has won the summer contest at Daytona but in 10 February Cup starts has only been able to muster two top-five finishes. He had a stellar car in the Busch Clash but didn’t see the end of the race last Sunday.
“I look at the real chances I feel like we’ve had to win it where we didn’t get crashed out or we didn’t have things happen that we couldn’t control and that’s the real number to me, and I think there’s really only been three of those races of those 10,” Keselowski said of his run from 2014 to 2016. “One of them I made a mistake and the other one we just weren’t fast enough and the third one, I think, we blew up in, so with respect to that it’s frustrating to not capitalize on the three opportunities I’ve probably had to win this race, but I am confident based on the way we ran the last four or five times here that we’ll have that opportunity again really soon, so I feel like this car that I have here for the 500 is one of the better cars I’ve ever had here.
“I’ve had great cars here the last three or four years and this is right up there with them, but at the end of the day I can’t control everyone else’s moves and in the last four or five years I’ve been caught up in that and you just kind of raise your hands and say, ‘we did what we could do.’ Whether that’s the 500 or anything else, so that probably makes it not sting so bad, knowing that we’ve been crashed out and things that were completely out of our control and other drivers’ bad moves. It doesn’t make you feel good about it though.”
Truex’s superspeedway results pale in comparison to Keselowski, who has won the summer Daytona race and has five victories at Talladega. Truex has yet to win at either track and in 15 starts in the 500, he’s posted just one top five, when he took one for the Toyota team and pushed Denny Hamlin to the 2016 win and finished second.
“The second still hurts from a couple of years ago in ’16,” Truex said. “I remember that vividly. It's a huge race. It is the big one. Everybody wants to win it. I'm no different. But I don't lose sleep at night because I haven't won it. I don't think about it, I guess, any differently than any other race, other than when I come here, I don't really worry about points. I just try to figure out a way to win it.
“Obviously I haven't done that yet. I think the biggest thing for me is just trying to get to the end. Every time we are around at the finish of one of these races, we're in the mix. We have a shot. It's just so hard—I’ve had such a hard time trying to find a way to finish Superspeedway races. I've tried everything, riding around, racing hard, staying in the front. The other day I'm running third and I get wrecked on a restart. It's like no matter what I do, I can't find a way to finish."
Could Sunday be the day that the No.19 ends up in Victory Lane?
“I'm never the guy that caused the wrecks, but I'm always the guy in the middle of them," Trues added. "It's very, very frustrating, very frustrating, and I don't really know what to do about it. That's really my focus every time we come here is just trying to figure that out. How do I get to the end? I know if we get to the end, we're going to have a chance. So hopefully this weekend we can figure it out."