The Daytona 500. It is THE Big One. It's the "Super Bowl" of racing. You win it, you are immortalized in the racing community. Even if it's all you ever win. Derrike Cope, Tiny Lund, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr, etc. will always be Daytona 500 Champions.
The opposite is true if you do not win it. This race can turn great champions into frustrated, surly, old men. After a while it gets tough carrying a monkey on your back for months. From the day the season ends, all attention turns to Daytona. And that's when the monkey takes its perch. For it won't be too long until the driver with the monkey will be in Daytona to test a new set of wheels or come for some promotional deal, and he will hear the question: "Is this the year?" Or the other question that comes with it: "Why haven't you been able to win the 500? You've won everything else."
The monkey first appeared on Darrell Waltrip's back in the 1970s. It stayed through the 1980s. Every year DW would come down to Daytona and run fantastically. He'd win a Busch Clash (Bud Shootout). He'd win a Twin 125 (Gatorade Duel). He'd win a 300 on Saturday. But on Sunday, something would go wrong. A cut tire here, a blown engine there and D.W would leave frustrated.
Then on one magical day in 1989, the monkey jumped off his back. He didn't have the fastest car that day, but it got great gas mileage. So much so that he coasted in, almost on fumes, to the checkered flag, but because he needed one fewer pit stop than his competition, he coasted in first.
Never had there been a Victory Lane Celebration at Daytona quite like this one. It went from ecstasy to tears. He did an NFL style end zone dance and then broke down crying all in a matter of seconds. Waltrip screamed "I WON THE DAYTONA 500!! I WON THE DAYTONA 500!!!" He then followed that up with, "Wait, this is Daytona right? Don't tell me it isn't. THANK GOD!! THANK GOD!!" Definitely one of my all-time favorite Daytona moments. That monkey had to find a new home.
It did not take long for him to find one. Dale Earnhardt was available.
Earnhardt was maybe the greatest driver to ever strap in a race car. He won everywhere. The restrictor plate tracks? Earnhardt ruled them. Short tracks? He owned them. Intermediate tracks? Forget about it. He won Cup Championships. he won big races. He won everything at Speed Weeks. Everything except, of course, The Big One.
He was so dominant at Daytona that at one time they changed the Clash format to try to make the race at least a bit interesting. They stopped it halfway and inverted the field. Dale didn't care. I saw him lead at the halfway mark, get sent to the back and two laps later he was in front again.
He won an astonishing 38 races at the track. He swept an entire decade of Twin 125s. Yes that's right, he was 10 for the 90s on Thursday. He would come to Speed Weeks and win the Clash, a Twin, an IROC on Friday and the 300 on Saturday. But on Sunday, he would leave disappointed.
He would lose in some of the most unusual ways, too. One year he hit a seagull and the feathers all over his grill caused the car to overheat. Another year he led by about a half lap only to cut a tire down on the back stretch of the last lap.
But finally in 1998, he finally got the monkey to go away. As yellow flew two laps from the end, he held off the field back to the stripe. He had finally done it. Not a dry eye was in the house that day when EVERY crew member from every team lined pit road to shake Earnhardt's hand as he made his way to Victory Lane.
When asked where this win ranked with all the other things he'd accomplished in the sport, Earnhardt replied, "This tops them all buddy. This tops them all."
Three years later Earnhardt was tragically killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Although it was tragic, it was almost poetic. What other way would you have Earnhardt go out? Dale Earnhardt and the Daytona 500 waged such a great battle, it's almost as if God decided it should end in a tie.The monkey needed a new home.
Finding a worthy home after Earnhardt was no easy task. After all, you don't just jump on anybody's back after two great legends like Waltrip and Earnhardt. Rusty Wallace? Not quite. He's good, but he's no Earnhardt. Kurt Busch? No. Mark Martin? No. Great driver, but he's also never won a Cup Championship either. Who then?
And the answer is...Tony Stewart. Tony Stewart is a great driver. He's won an Indy Car Championship. He's won Sprint Cup Championships. He's won the Brickyard. He's won multiple times at Daytona. He's won Shootouts, Duels, 300s, 400s, even IROC races. But not the 500. The question is now being asked of Tony Stewart: "Why haven't you been able to win the 500?"
He's come close. He pushed Ryan Newman across the line three years ago. Now people are wondering when it will be him across the line first. The longer it takes, the heavier that monkey gets.
Stewart had better win it soon. Do we really need Stewart on the track already angry before the race even starts? That can only be bad.