February 17, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Let’s go beyond setting goals and achieving them, driving of the unthinkable as a kid and making it come true. Let’s go beyond the instant fame and fortune, the television appearances and additional opportunities for promotional deals. Let’s go beyond David Letterman, commercials and an easier time in getting sponsors. Let’s even go beyond the fact that the driver will forever be introduced as for mer Daytona 500 winner John Doe, like he’s got a new first name.
Let’ss talk history, a driver’s spot in the legends and lore of the sport.
At the very least, the driver becomes a permanent footnote. No matter what a driver does the rest of his career, he’s reached the pinnacle of stock car racing for at least one shining moment.
But a look at the past winners suggests an even bigger role for almost all of the Daytona 500 champions.
A good start in Florida doesn’s automatically ensure a driver of winning the Winston Cup championship that year. There’s been 43 Daytona 500s since Daytona International Speedway opened up in 1959, and just seven times has the winner of the race gone on to win the season title. Actually, just four drivers have won both in the same season because Richard Petty won the race and the championship in the same year four times.
But the list of drivers that have doubled up in the same season are among the best drivers in the history of NASCAR: Petty the King; his father, Lee Petty (1959); Cale Yarborough (1977); and Jeff Gordon (1997).
In fact, the top drivers in NASCAR history have all won a Daytona 500. The six drivers with the most career victories have combined to win the Daytona 500 17 times. Richard Petty won the race seven times, while Yarborough won it four times. Bobby Allison won at Daytona three times, while David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt all won the great American race once.
Seven drivers have won three or more Winston Cup championships. All of them have won the Daytona 500: Earnhardt, Richard and Lee Petty, Gordon, Pearson, Waltrip and Yarborough.
This makes sense, of course. If you’re winning everything in site, you are probably going to win your sport’s biggest event. And if you’re a Waltrip or Earnhardt, who had already shown their domination and didn’t win their Daytona 500 until late in their career, getting ready for the race would become all-consuming.
And a true champion won’t be denied. In fact, that might well be what the Daytona 500 is all about: crowning true champions.
There’s been 27 winners of NASCAR’s biggest race. All but five were named to the list of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 when the sanctioning body celebrated its first 50 years. Of course, one of these five was Mario Andretti, considered by many to be the greatest driver ever. Mario, however, never really focused on stock cars and was instead content with winning Formula One and CART titles.
Of the other four, three of the drivers won after NASCAR legislated restrictor plates for the Daytona race: Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994, 1995) and Michael Waltrip (2001). The fourth was Pete Hamilton, who won the 1970 Daytona 500. Perhaps these victories prove that in the current high-tech era, having a great engine and great team can be almost as important as being a true champion in Daytona.
Four of the drivers on NASCAR’s top 50 list are still active, yet haven’t won a Daytona 500: Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace. In addition, there’s a nice supply of up-and-coming drivers that might soon belong on any list of NASCAR greats (Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick) and some strong veterans that could still earn their way (Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton).
So along with some of the active drivers who have already won the Daytona 500 are Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott, etc. and there’s a good likelihood of Daytona continuing to crown kings far into the future.