In this year’s Daytona 500, it appears the youth movement is upon us more than ever. Seven rookies are assured of being in this year’s starting field, with several others finding themselves at the helm of quality rides in just their second or third Daytona 500 experience. Still learning the true ups and downs of life on NASCAR’s top circuit, some of these drivers, the whole world in front of them, have not quite realized just how long their careers might go without ending one February on top in the Great American Race.
Look in the eyes of the older veterans, though, and they’ll tell you a different story of how much this race means to them. With careers winding short, there are four in particular who enter this year’s 500 with a special sense of urgency, determined to make that one final push for Victory Lane, before they find out it’s too late.
Among this group of four, you have over 100 Daytona 500 starts. Yet only one of these four has finished on top in NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl. A win this February, as great as it would be for one of NASCAR’s "young guns," would become that much more meaningful for any of them as a result, just because of how much pain Daytona has given almost all of them as they head towards the twilight of their careers"¦
Mark Martin: Everyone talks about Martin’s failed attempts at a Nextel Cup title, but that award isn’t the only thing missing from his Hall of Fame resume. Martin’s career also has zeros in the win column in two of the series’ biggest races: the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, and the prestigious Daytona 500. Here in Florida, there’ve been opportunities"¦but all have fallen just short. In 1995, Martin was merely a spectator to a Sterling Marlin "" Dale Earnhardt duel at the front, taking the checkered in 3rd place. The following year, there was nearly the same result, as the 6 car finished behind the Top 3 of Dale Jarrett, Earnhardt, and Ken Schrader. But the one that may have truly gotten away from Martin was the 2000 race. Strong throughout, the 6 car was in front of the field for 65 laps, second to only Dale Jarrett, but lost out on a late-race green flag scramble to the finish that left Johnny Benson up front due to pit strategy. Martin found himself out of the lead and pushed out of line near race’s end, and his 5th-place finish was not at all reflective of what could have been. With time winding down and hopes fading on that elusive championship performance, a win for Martin in the 500 would likely run second to only a win by Kyle Petty as the ultimate Cinderella story to begin NASCAR’s season.
Terry Labonte: For Texas Terry, this year’s Daytona is a twist of fate. At the end of 2004, his full-time days in Nextel Cup behind him, the elder of the two Labonte brothers claimed he would never run Daytona or Talladega on his two-year Shifting Gears farewell tour, saying if he didn’t win there 25 years before, why would years 26 or 27 be any different? So, 2005 came and went without a restrictor plate in sight for Terry, and 2006 appeared to be the same way"¦that is, until the new Hall of Fame Racing Team led by Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach came to Labonte with a desperate plea. Drive for us the first five races, they said, so we can use your champion’s provisional to assure our sponsor a spot in the field. Give us your experience to lead our race team successfully into Nextel Cup"¦and we’ll give you one more chance at Daytona.
Labonte agreed, and he now has one last chance to put the demons of the Great American Race behind him. Quietly, just like his persona, the demons exist, although no one mentions his name much on the list of Daytona "almosts." Labonte has not one, not two, but three second place finishes in this race. There was 1986, when Terry finished 11 seconds behind first-time Daytona winner Geoff Bodine, benefiting from Dale Earnhardt’s late engine failure. In 1990, an Earnhardt problem caused Labonte to benefit again"¦nearly giving him the race. Earnhardt’s shredded tire in Turn 3 of lap 200 gave Texas Terry a chance, but he fell just two car-lengths short to underdog winner Derrike Cope. Then, in 1997, Labonte was part of the 1-2-3 Hendrick parade at Daytona"¦unfortunately for him, they parade had Jeff Gordon as its leader, winning his first of what would be three Daytona 500 crowns.
Now, at 49, Labonte is back for one last chance with little fanfare, most critics pointing to the champion’s provisional as his starting spot of choice for next Sunday. Yet, stranger things have happened to both Labonte and this speedway"¦could the soft-spoken Texan pull a rabbit out of his hat one final time? It’s certainly possible.
Ken Schrader: The 50-year-old NASCAR veteran may not have won a race since 1991, but make no mistake about it, he’s paid his dues at Daytona. His best chance at the 500 came in 1989, when he dominated Speedweeks, winning the pole and leading the most laps only to see Hendrick Motorsports teammate Darrell Waltrip stay on track when he had to pit for fuel. Waltrip hung on with the fuel tank on empty to win the 500, and Schrader had to settle for second. The next year, Schrader won the pole a second straight time, but saw his engine explode in a shower of sparks merely a quarter of the way through the race, ending his shot at 500 glory. In 1996, Schrader had the perfect view of Dale Earnhardt’s agony of defeat, finishing 3rd behind the Earnhardt/Dale Jarrett drag race to the finish, and in 1998, finished 4th the year Earnhardt finally broke his streak to win his first Daytona 500. In all, Schrader racked up 7 Top 10 finishes in the 500 between 1993 to 2000, but with no Daytona wins to show for it. Now, with his career winding to a close, he’s got one last chance at success here with the Wood Brothers. Top-notch equipment and engines for the first time in years and a team with momentum on its side have Schrader thinking Daytona sleeper, as he takes the green flag for what likely will be his final 500.
Bill Elliott: In one sense, you would think this wily veteran has nothing left to prove. 1988 Cup champion, 1985 & 1987 Daytona 500 winner, more Most Popular Driver Awards than anyone else, Awesome Bill from Dawsonville could never run another race, and his legacy would be secure. Still, the 50-year-old veteran hears the whispers. Since switching to a part-time schedule before 2004, Elliott has struggled, with no Top 5 finishes and no wins. Ricky Rudd openly criticized the part-time schedule approach upon his retirement, claiming it "wasn’t working" for Elliott, so why would it work for him? Winning the 500 this year would prove all those people wrong, and show the older drivers that, given the right circumstances, the word "semi-retired" wouldn’t come with the additional baggage of "no more wins." You can feel the energy from Elliott, away from the Evernham stable and working with the underdog MB2 Motorsports Chevrolets. A common thread among that group’s three drivers? Veterans with something to prove. What a perfect fit for the redhead who’s always achieved above expectations.
Maybe one of these veterans will be lucky to break through on Sunday"¦maybe not. But perhaps the most telling statement is this: next Sunday afternoon, when the lights at Daytona have faded and the fans begin driving home, at least two of these drivers can officially say they ran the Daytona 500 over 20 times"¦and never won. That, in itself, shows you how difficult this race can be to win"¦and what a bitter pill it is to swallow for those longtime drivers who never make it to the top of this sacred speedway’s Victory Lane.
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