It’s not likely that any driver in NASCAR would tell you that he would trade a Daytona 500 win for a win in any other race of the season. Teams spend more time preparing for Daytona than for any other group of five races you could name. The mystique of the 500 is such that any driver who gives up his winning car to the museum considers the entire season a success, no matter what happens afterward.
And lately, it seems as though every 500 winner is making that trade-off.
To look at the rest of the seasons that recent 500 winners have enjoyed, one could easily think that with the car going to the museum goes a driver’s good fortune for the season, or that a Daytona victory is so draining that a team has nothing left for the rest of the year.
But neither has really been the case. Ultimately what it boils down to is that we still race with restrictor plates at Daytona, which is a large part of the reason that the Daytona 500—and the Bud Shootout, for that matter—are the worst possible indicators of a driver’s future success in the season.
Of the last five 500 winners, only Jimmie Johnson in 2006 had what could be called a successful season without including a Daytona victory. Johnson won everything that could be won that year…Daytona, the Brickyard 400, the Nextel Cup. He won the 500 (and the spring Talladega race) in an era where Hendrick ran very well at plate tracks—from 2005-2007, Hendrick won seven of 12 plate events.
This explains partly how Jeff Gordon went from winning the 500 in 2005 to missing the Chase. Nine races into the 2005 season, Gordon was flying high on a 500 victory and wins at Martinsville and Talladega. Even with the three victories, however, he was only third in the points standings, for a reason that would bear itself out in later races…the 24 team never seemed to get a handle on the new spoiler height. That by itself might not have been enough to keep him out of the playoffs, but the 24 car’s poor early running in races frequently put Gordon back in the pack with lesser drivers, often ending his race early with a tangle and a DNF.
Kevin Harvick won the greatest Daytona 500 ever in 2007, and hasn’t won a points race since. He made the Chase that year but was never a factor, finishing tenth in the standings. Childress in general seemed to be starting its decline then, perhaps devoting too much in resources to the new Car of Tomorrow events. Harvick’s better runs for the most part that season were at short tracks with the new car, but even there, RCR’s success was not in the league of the Hendrick and Gibbs teams—or even Roush, once Jack sluggishly realized that this would be the car and NASCAR wasn’t changing their mind.
Ryan Newman got pushed to a victory in the 2008 500 by Kurt Busch, probably making him very grateful that Rusty was no longer his teammate. After the win, Newman managed just one top 5 and seven top 10s over the rest of the season, showing the importance of teamwork at plate tracks and nowhere else. The 12 team missed the Chase and finished 17th for the season overall.
Penske was also in a funk by this point, possibly suffering from the acrimony that had affected the team for so long during the longstanding feud between its two drivers. Newman had gone from winning eight races in 2003 to just three in the four seasons that followed, with zero in 2006 and 2007. After leaving Roush Racing to join Penske Racing in 2006, Kurt Busch had a little more success, but not anything approaching his title-contending years at Roush.
Matt Kenseth won a rain-shortened Daytona 500 race in 2009, and after winning the following weekend in Fontana seemed destined to break any hex that had befallen recent 500 winners. Alas, it was not to be…NASCAR had implemented its testing ban at the beginning of the 2009 season, and testing, as it apparently seems, was Roush Fenway’s greatest weapon. A 17 team that in the previous two years had scored 15 of its 22 top 5s at intermediate speedways dented the top 5 just three times at speedways after the two victories to open the season. The other Roush Fenway teams similarly struggled. Carl Edwards went from nine wins in 2008—seven of them at intermediates—to zero in 2009.
I think you see where this is going. The success of drivers after Daytona 500 wins in recent years fairly demonstrates that success at plate tracks, and intermediate speedways to a lesser extent, is more a product of aero package and luck than anything else. And it’s more luck than aero at plate tracks and more aero than luck at intermediates.
I watched the Bud Shootout for the first time in a long time this season. It’s usually the time my wife and I go away for a weekend before she loses me to covering the sport for ten months of Sundays, but with the piles of snow on our driveway, this wasn’t possible. So I thought I’d at least have a chance to see which of my fantasy team drivers seemed to be running well at Daytona, and I might have a clue who to activate for the 500.
After watching the entire Shootout, I haven’t the foggiest. With the cars being so spec, it seems as though anyone from Jeff Gordon to Sam Hornish could win the 2010 Daytona 500. The only drivers that I am confident will run well this Sunday are Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart. Everyone else is completely up in the air.
Winning the 500 almost does as much to ensure a driver’s place in history as winning a championship. The list of Daytona 500 winners used to be a who’s who of NASCAR greats: Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough. Since 2000, we’ve seen Michael Waltrip, Ward Burton, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Newman win the Great American Race—and I would bet even money that a non-champion with less than five career wins could take the trophy home this year. Scott Wimmer (remember him?) finished third in his first Daytona 500. He never finished top 5 again in a Cup race. Elliott Sadler came within yards of winning it last season. Nothing against any of these guys, but none of them have ever been serious championship contenders. That’s plate racin’.
I’m not trying to put a damper on your enjoyment of the coming Daytona 500. Maybe it’s good in a way. Like the Orioles being in first place at the end of April, there’s a reason for fans of drivers who don’t win very often to tune in to the 500. Most fans would be ecstatic to see their driver win the Great American Race, and it’s an opportunity for teams with less funding to make history.
But it’s unfortunate that so little of it depends on driver skill, pit crew superiority and total team effort from the garage to turn four on lap 200.
- OK, so I happened to stumble on Speed’s broadcast of the Daytona ARCA race. Like everyone else, I got caught up in where Danica was going to finish at the expense of everyone else’s fortunes. I have to admit I was impressed by the save she made on the car, but I felt so ashamed afterward.
- Like every year, Tony Stewart seems strong enough to be a frontrunner for the Daytona 500 victory. He’s getting to be like Dale Earnhardt, with strong cars every year but never enough luck on his side. Maybe this year.
- One thing NASCAR has on the NFL is that the Daytona 500 commercials in recent years have been better than the Super Bowl’s. But this year’s SB ads were pretty good. I loved the Green Police Audi spot. Let’s see if NASCAR can measure up this year.
- It dawned on me that with much of the East Coast buried in all of this fornicating snow, NASCAR has a chance to get on the map again like they did in 1979. But who would be the fight participants? I’d say Tony and Juan Pablo would be great.
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