Winning the Daytona 500 is one of the greatest accomplishments a race-car driver can achieve, an automatic membership into one of the sports world's most exclusive fraternities.
No matter what happens in the rest of a driver's career, a win in the Great American Race brings worldwide and lifelong recognition that no other stock-car race offers.
Only 35 drivers have ever won NASCAR's so-called Super Bowl, led by The King, Richard Petty, who holds the record for most Daytona 500 triumphs with seven. No other driver has ever won more than four (Cale Yarborough).
Even the man who shares the record (seven each) for most career Cup championships with Petty, the late Dale Earnhardt—who lost his life 12 years ago on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500—managed just one 500 victory in his storied career.
And it took Earnhardt 20 years of trying before doing so in 1998.
The list of drivers who never won the Daytona 500 is a veritable Who's Who of some of the sport's all-time greats, including Rusty Wallace, who was inducted Friday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, as well as fellow Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Herb Thomas, Buck Baker and Cotton Owens.
As we prepare for the 55th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 24, anticipation and excitement is beginning to build for drivers and fans alike.
The field will include nine former and still active Daytona 500 champions: three-time winner Jeff Gordon, two-time and defending 500 winner Matt Kenseth, two-time winner Michael Waltrip, as well as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.
Any of those drivers is a threat to win again.
But how about some of the sport's biggest stars of today who have never won the 500?
The list is lengthy and includes defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and, yes, even Danica Patrick has as good of a chance to win as anyone.
Let's also not forget ageless wonder Mark Martin, who has chased a win in the 500 for 28 years, coming as close as less than a fender length in the 2007 edition that ultimately went to Kevin Harvick.
Even Juan Pablo Montoya would gain back some credibility after embarrassingly running into a jet dryer under caution in last year's 500, setting off a huge fireball that made international news, as well as forced emergency repairs of the race track (fortunately, neither Montoya nor the jet dryer's driver were injured).
All the current drivers who have never won the 500 have a lot to gain if they do so in 2013. But is there potentially one driver who stands out above the rest, someone who has the most to gain in taking the checkered flag first?
That's a question that's hard—if not downright impossible—to answer. Virtually every driver who has ever won the 500 deserved to do so on that particular day, from Richard Petty's incredible come-from-behind win in 1979 to Bayne's improbable triumph in 2011, just one day after his 20th birthday.
Kyle Busch and Edwards are both deserving of winning on Feb. 24, if for nothing else, to start a big comeback after one of the worst seasons either driver has endured in his career in 2012.
Edwards, especially, has a lot to prove, having come so close to winning the Sprint Cup championship in 2011—losing to Stewart by just one point in a tie-breaker, the closest title battle in Cup history—only to practically fall apart in 2012, not even qualifying for the Chase.
Kurt Busch, who just last week was named to Forbes magazine's list of most disliked athletes (he ranked eighth), could use a win to also start off a comeback season, especially with new team Furniture Row Racing.
Keselowski would stand to gain quite a bit with a win in the 500, if for nothing else to prove to critics and naysayers that his championship run last season was not a fluke. In fact, what better way to pick up where he left off at the end of 2012 with a win to start 2013?
Bowyer, Hamlin and Kahne are also worthy candidates.
But after thinking about it long and hard, weighing the pros and cons as well as looking at all the other accomplishments he's achieved in his career, yet to still have such a gaping hole in his racing resume, there really is just one driver who deserves to win the 500 the most—and for the first time in his career:
No, that's not a fanboy selection or a sympathy pick. Stewart is one of the best drivers of his generation. He's won 47 races—including four wins in the summer race at Daytona (but never in the 500)—en route to three Sprint Cup championships.
Yet after 14 years on the Sprint Cup circuit—and 14 tries at the Daytona 500—Stewart still doesn't have what some of best buddies in Cup have. Harvick has one, so does Newman, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. But not the man who has the colorful nickname of "Smoke."
In a sense, Stewart has become this era's Dale Earnhardt. No matter how hard Earnhardt tried, or how legendary he was, it took him 20 tries before he won the 500.
Stewart is at 14 tries, going on 15 in two weeks. He needs to stop that ignominious streak cold, not to mention doing so would in some semblance make amends for what Stewart did in his last restrictor-plate race last fall at Talladega, when he triggered a 24-car pileup rather than yield to a hard-charging Waltrip and Casey Mears on the final lap.
Not only was Stewart criticized for causing that massive wreck—which, to his credit, he readily admitted—but it also left Earnhardt Jr. with a concussion that forced him to miss the next two races, ending his championship hopes.
But still, Stewart in my mind has the most to gain with a win at Daytona this month. It would finally end what has been a source of frustration that has grown with each passing year.
It would also help Stewart to rebound from a less-than-captivating season in 2012 as 2011's defending champion. Sure, he made the Chase last season, but he wasn't even a factor in its outcome, unlike the year before when he won five of the 10 Chase races to cap off his third Cup championship.
Admittedly, if I could have done so, I would have made it a tie between Stewart and Martin—as a sentimental favorite—as to who would gain the most with a 500 win.
So, let's make a compromise: Stewart wins the 500 this year in his 15th try, and Martin comes back to win it next year in his 30th try.
You couldn't come up with a better storyline than that.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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