It’s the race that makes some drivers’ dreams come true and crushes others’.
It’s NASCAR’s biggest, most-prestigious and highest-paying event, and is in a league all by itself, figuratively-speaking.
Win this one, and you’ll be forever remembered in NASCAR lore. Fail to find Victory Lane and there will forever be a big, gaping hole on your resume.
This race, of course, is the Daytona 500, and this year’s 57th running of NASCAR’s crown jewel figures to feature enough drama, suspense and excitement to keep every fan on the edge of his seat until one car takes the checkered flag ahead of 42 others.
How difficult is it to win the Daytona 500?
Consider the list of drivers who have never been fortunate enough to hoist the race’s coveted Harley J. Early trophy.
Among NASCAR’s household names still seeking their first triumph in The Great American Race are Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin – just to name a few.
In fact, of the 16 drivers who made up last year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, only six have sprayed the winner’s champagne in the sport’s premier event.
At least one driver who already owns a victory in the 500 wants so badly to win it again that he would go to extreme measures, if necessary, to make it happen.
“I’d wreck my mom if I had to,” said Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 champion. “One hundred percent.”
Harvick likely isn’t the only one. Especially considering he already has a Harley J. Early trophy sitting on his shelf.
Kyle Busch does not.
“I love the Daytona 500,” Busch said. “As a kid growing up, you’re watching that race on TV, you’re dreaming of one day being able to race in that race. Now me being Kyle Busch, who I am as driver of the No. 18 M&Ms car, I love the feeling of wanting to be able to win that race. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when I can achieve that and win that race.
“I feel like I’ve won everything else down in Daytona that there is to win. … I have not yet won the Daytona 500 yet, so I’m hoping it doesn’t take me 20 years like it took another great in the sport … Dale Earnhardt Sr. But who knows? As long I can get one with before it’s over and said and done with, I’ll be happy with that.”
Busch need not feel too bad, however. He’s in good company.
Case in point: Three-time Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart is an astonishing 0-for-16 in NASCAR’s season opener at The World Center of Racing.
“To be able to win the Daytona 500 is the ultimate dream of a race car driver … but it is hard,” Stewart said. “It’s a hard race, and it’s not like you get to come back next week and try it again if you don’t accomplish it. You get one shot a year to accomplish this goal.”
But for some drivers, one shot is all that’s required to cement their place in Daytona 500 glory. Just ask 2011 winner Trevor Bayne, who at age 20 captured NASCAR’s No. 1 event in just his second career Sprint Cup start.
“When you drive into this place, it just feels different than any other racetrack, so you get used to it a little bit year after year,” he said. “But then you watch the old races and you realize how big of a deal the Daytona 500 is, and just to be a part of it is really special to every driver.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up his second Daytona 500 win in dramatic fashion last season. Now, he’s aiming to join the short list of repeat 500 winners.
Jeff Gordon will make his final Daytona 500 start. How fitting it would be for the three-time Daytona 500 champion to capture his fourth 500 this year.
Denny Hamlin had the dominant car throughout Speedweeks 2014, but came up one position short in the Daytona 500. This could finally be his time.
No driver wants to win the Daytona 500 more than Tony Stewart, and after the year he endured in 2014, Stewart will no doubt be hungrier than ever.
If you like dark horses, then Jamie McMurray is a terrific pick. The 2010 Daytona 500 champion, McMurray is always at his best at Daytona and Talladega.