The challenge that awaits Matt Kenseth on Sunday may seem a bit daunting.
That’s because it really is.
If the Roush Fenway Racing driver wins the Daytona 500, he’ll become just the fourth driver in the event’s 52-year history to find victory lane in consecutive seasons.
The first back-to-back winner of The Great American Race was eventual seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty. “The King,” as he is affectionately known in NASCAR circles, did the double in 1973 and 1974. A decade passed before the legendary Cale Yarborough captured his Daytona 500 triumphs in 1983 and 1984, and almost another 10 years before Sterling Marlin accomplished it in 1994 and 1995. A lot of great drivers have since hoisted the prestigious Harley J. Earl trophy but no Daytona 500 winner has repeated the next season.
Will Kenseth change that on Sunday? In short: Probably not.
With all due respect to the 2003 Cup champion and his accomplishments in NASCAR, the restrictor-plate racing done only at Daytona and Talladega has never been of one of Kenseth’s strengths. In fact, his Daytona 500 triumph last year came after 18 failed attempts at finding victory lane at the 2.5-mile track. Kenseth has been no more impressive at Talladega, falling short in all 20 of his starts at the 2.66-mile high-speed facility.
The struggle to claim NASCAR’s most coveted trophy in consecutive seasons is just a testament to how incredibly difficult it is to win the Daytona 500. Drivers and teams have all winter to prepare for this race, and it clearly shows by the dearth of repeat winners.
Daytona Speedweeks, which begins with Daytona 500 qualifying and the Budweiser Shootout, and ends more than a week later, is almost like a season within itself. It takes almost the perfect Speedweeks to win the 500. Even if a driver avoids trouble in the 500, a problem in the Gatorade Duel qualifying races, practice or even the Shootout can cripple his chances of winning the big one.
Then, once race day arrives for the 500, it’s impossible to predict how the event will play out or which strategy will prove best. In past restrictor-plate races, we’ve seen drivers drop to the rear of the field early in hopes of avoiding the familiar multi-car crashes that mar Daytona and Talladega. But that plan can backfire, as the wreck can occur near the end of the field just as easily as it can the middle or the front.
There’s also the issue of pit strategy. Unlike Talladega, where drivers can run flat out all day without having to worry about their cars’ handling, Daytona requires a strong blend of handling and horsepower to go fast. Being a little off in either area can translate into a long day.
And of course, there’s always the matter of teamwork and drafting help. Even if a driver steers clear of all trouble and has a lightning-fast car, he can be denied a victory if no one is willing to work with him in the final moments.
We saw this in last year’s Daytona 500 when Elliott Sadler tumbled from first to fifth in less than a lap – a lap that turned out to be the last run under green because of rains that ended the race 48 laps prematurely.
Leading the group that steamrolled Sadler was Kenseth, who will need to be in just the right place at just the right time once again in order to repeat.