Every NASCAR driver’s dream is to win their first Daytona 500. Every winning driver’s struggle is to win it a second time.
In the 60 races in Daytona 500 history, only 11 drivers have won again. When you eliminate the way-back drivers Richard Petty (seven wins) and Cale Yarborough (four), the ability to do it recently has not been easy. The last repeat winner was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished first in 2004 and 2014.
Only three drivers have ever won back-to-back races, Petty (1973-74), Yarborough (1983-84) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95).
Of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s 76 wins, only one came in the Daytona 500. Same for Darrell Waltrip with 84 wins. Even the legendary David Pearson could manage only one victory lane appearance in 105 wins.
So, what’s the trick to winning at Daytona and why is it even more difficult to repeat?
“This place isn’t easy to win at, which is why it’s so special,” said Austin Dillon, last year’s winner. “Everything has to line up just perfectly for you to go to victory lane. And that’s what it’s all about.
“The only game plan you can make is anything can happen and you have to be ready for that. Just be prepared for everything that … could go wrong. Last year with 17 laps to go, we were a lap down. If you can get a lap back and put yourself in a winning position, that’s pretty good.”
There are eight previous champions in Sunday’s race and all have qualified in the top 20 of the 40-car field. Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano, both former winners, make up Row 2 behind pole-sitter William Byron and Alex Bowman.
Harvick won the race in 2007 and Logano in 2015. Logano is hoping to become the first points champion to win Daytona the next year since Dale Jarrett did it in 1999-2000.
“Something is going to happen on the last lap most of the time,” Logano said in explaining why the race is so difficult to win. “There is going to be a run, and you’re going to have to defend it. There might be a crash you’re going to have to get through.
“It’s not about the points in this race, it’s about winning the Great American Race, the biggest race of the year. That’s what it’s all about. Nobody cares about getting second- or third-place points in this race as much as they would in Atlanta.”
Harvick, along with Logano, won one of the qualifying races Thursday night. Daytona, unlike every other race, qualifies the top two positions through the traditional time trials, then all other spots are determined by two 150-mile races.
Harvick believes the emotions are what also elevates this race.
“It always happens,” Harvick said. “You get to Sunday, and you feel all the excitement and enthusiasm and the stage points and all the things that come with the Daytona 500. When they flip the switch on Sunday, it’s not like flipping the switch anywhere else. When you come to this green flag, the hair stands up on your arms. You see the crowd and you see what’s on the line.”
Sunday’s race will be the last one using restrictor plates. Daytona and Talladega have used these speed inhibitors in order to equalize the cars and create a more exciting race. Starting a week from Sunday in Atlanta, NASCAR will implement a thicker spacer, which will restrict air flow and cut down on the horsepower, at all tracks more than 1.2 miles. The goal is to make the racing more competitive.
This Sunday will also be the last race for Jamie McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 in 2010. He’ll become an analyst for FOX and also take on an administrative role for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It’s so hard to have the right engine make, the right car manufacturer make, and to have those at the same time,” McMurray said about winning at Daytona. “And you have to be able to finish. The year I won, EGR (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) had the best plate engines. In that era, the Chevy Impala was one of the best speedway cars. It’s hard to have all those things and then have the luck to go along with it.”
Luck is the great intangible. Last year, Bubba Wallace, a rookie, recognized it as the key to finishing second.
“Hopefully, I can be just as lucky as I was Sunday night last year,” Wallace said. “You never know in plate racing. I could have a great run, working my way up to the front, get pushed too hard, and wreck. Last year, everything just kind of worked out and we were able to miss a lot of the wrecks.”