After the Super Bowl is over in early February there comes an attack of commercials where the players will turn to the camera and say, “I’m going to Disney World!”
Then a few weeks later NASCAR has their version of the Super Bowl in the Daytona 500. It’s the first race of the year and the one that means so much for so many people when they win it. If drivers were given the opportunity to win only one race in their career, they would probably pick the Daytona 500.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media in 2004 prior to winning the 500, “There are some drivers that end their career and never win the Daytona 500 and then there are some who end their career and never win a championship. I don’t know which is worst…I hope I never have to find out.”
So is winning the Great American Race really that great?
Says 2007 winner Kevin Harvick “Man, this is the Daytona 500, can you believe it? It’s the Daytona 500.”
Or the ’06 winner of Jimmie Johnson, “I’m dedicating this to all the haters of the 48 team.” Apparently Jimmie had other things on his mind.
But what he meant to say was, “This has got to be the greatest day of my life.” Just Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in 2004.
Alright so maybe the 500 is great to win and still the most look forward to victory lane and celebration of the year. You win this race and you have a week filled with a car induction into Daytona USA and cool media appearances, then you’re the winner for an entire year.
However, you may only feel like a winner for about a week. That’s because winning the Daytona 500 doesn’t guarantee a drivers success for the rest of the year.
The last two years, 2007 and 2008, have seen the Daytona 500 winner go on to never win another race all year and then fall through the points. Kevin Harvick finished 10th in points in ’07 and Ryan Newman finished 17th this year after failing to make the Chase for the Championship.
Then he announced he would be leaving Penske Racing to join Tony Stewart, the man he passed to win the 500, at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick and Newman aren’t the only ones who’ve hit rock bottom after being on the very top.
Michael Waltrip won the Daytona 500 in 2001 and 2003 and both years he finished no higher than 15th in points.
The year in between, 2002, saw Ward Burton pull a stunning victory but he would finish a non too stunning 24th in points.
“Did we have a disappointing season in 2002,” asked Ward Burton. “Hell yes, we had a disappointing season. But do I look back on that year and say, ‘Man, what a crappy year?’ No and neither does anyone else. My name in on that Harley J. Earl Trophy and there is nothing anybody can do about that.”
Yes, winning the Daytona 500 does not guarantee success. If anything, it guarantees failure. So if anyone driver wants to hand over their 500 trophy, I’ll be more than willing to make my own trophy case.
“Talk about humbling,” says Jeff Gordon, who won the Daytona 500 in 2005 but then failed to make the Chase finishing 11th in points. “You leave Daytona thinking you own the sport, that no one can beat you. Then by springtime you look like you’ve never driven a race car before. It certainly teaches you not to take anything for granted.”
Not even the late, great Dale Earnhardt won the 500 and went on to have a spectacular year. Everyone remembers his emotional win in 1998, but not everyone remembers that it was his only win that year. He finished eighth in points.
Over the last 12 years only two drivers have won the Daytona 500 and gone on to win the championship, a feat that has only been done 8 times in NASCAR history.
Lee Petty in 1959, Richard Petty in '64, '71, '72, '74, and '79. Cale Yarborough in '77, Jeff Gordon in 1997, and Jimmie Johnson in 2006.
In 1997 Jeff Gordon won ten races and his third championship. Then nine years later in 2006, his employee, Jimmie Johnson the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the season championship. Johnson had won a total of five races that year and has a history of matching Gordon and paving a new path.
In 1999 when Gordon won his second 500 and six other races he only finished sixth in points. Then a year later Dale Jarrett finished fourth in points after capturing the big race.
Larry McReynolds, who has won the Daytona 500 with driver Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison, tried to explain the major disappoint. “You put so much into that first race because it’s so huge that there is a bit of a letdown when it’s over. Win or lose, it’s hard to keep those emotions and the working pace up at that same level when you go to the next race and start the so-called regular season.”
The most recent driver that came close to pulling off the double, winning the 500 and then the championship, was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004.
He won the Great American Race six years to the day that his father won his first and only Daytona 500, on February 15.
Earnhardt Jr. used his momentum to win five other races that year and was in contention all the way to Homestead for the championship. However his luck ran out in Atlanta when he attempted to win the race and got in a wreck with Carl Edwards, had he not he would have been the points leader.
He finished fifth in points behind champion Kurt Busch.
“You can have a lucky day and win the Daytona 500,” says Ernie Irvan. “You can’t have a lucky season and win the championship.”
In today’s NASCAR you need to be pretty damn good to win anything.