Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Former NASCAR Cup Champions Look to Bolster Resume with Daytona 500 Win

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Their names are synonymous with reaching the pinnacle of NASCAR Cup Series racing as champions, but all of them have one glaring hole in their resume – a win in the Daytona 500.

Like so many that have come before them in search of capturing a victory in the biggest race in all of stock car racing, it has been a journey for each and every one of them, with near misses and heartbreak all along the way in the search for immortality.

For two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, Daytona has served up plenty of ups and downs throughout his career, from leading at the end of regulation just last season to end up on the rollback in overtime to being wheeled out of the track in an ambulance following a vicious crash in the Xfinity Series race in 2015 that forced him to miss the Daytona 500 altogether.

As he enters the 2024 edition of the Great American Race, he’ll have his work cut out for him coming from 34th place following a crash in the Thursday Duels and having to go to a back-up car.

Despite the weight of not having won this race yet, Busch noted that he has learned to not let the moment overwhelm him, just taking things as they come throughout the course of the event and if it is meant to be it will be.

“[Early on] it was kind of like – it’s a big deal, this is a big race, this is a big moment. It was butterflies, it was all that sort of stuff, especially when you get down toward the end,” Busch said. 

“Since I got comfortable at JGR, it was like ‘man, it’s just another race’, don’t let it get to you and don’t let the meaning of this race counteract the events of you trying to win. Vegas for instance. I went to Las Vegas, my home track, and I watched that place be built and all that. I put so much pressure on myself in winning an Xfinity race there that I crashed every year, did stupid stuff, spinning out at the checkered flag, and whatever, you know?

“Finally, we won that thing and it was like a relief and it was like, ‘wow, you really didn’t have to do as much’. You know? 

“You do have to put all the right pieces in the right places. You have to have the right car, you have to have good pit stops, you have to do your job, and if we can all execute and do our job as our team, with this No. 8 Zone Camaro ZL1 on Sunday, then its meant to be and its our day, then by all means we are going to celebrate like crazy.”

His former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. came as close as any driver can without winning this race, coming agonizingly close in 2016 when he lost in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history – just .010 seconds behind Denny Hamlin.

It’s not just in the Daytona 500 that Truex carries a goose egg in the win column, as he currently stands at 0 for 37 overall at Daytona and 0 for 19 in the Daytona 500 itself.

“This is the biggest one of the year,” Truex said. “It kicks off a new season as well, which is kind of interesting, the excitement of the offseason preparation and then you come down here and see what you have. It’s always important to kick off the season on a high note, and for us, this is our 20th try at the Daytona 500 and hopefully it’s our turn.

Truex added that he’s still reminded of that 2016 finish every time he returns to the World Center of Racing and hopes this will be the year that he and the team can change the narrative from near-miss to champion.

“Every time we drive into the tunnel here the picture is on the wall. Every time we come to Daytona it is something that gets talked about, so it is unfortunate to be on the wrong side of it, but cool moment to be a part of.”

Then there is Brad Keselowski, who many point to as the best superspeedway racer to not have a win in the Daytona 500. The RFK Racing co-owner/driver has won nearly every event imaginable at Daytona, but Sunday’s main event still eludes him.

With a 0 for 14 record in the Daytona 500, it seems that Keselowski is almost snakebitten when it comes to this race, having come as close as third in 2014, but also crashing out of five of the last seven Daytona 500.

Given the pressure that comes with never having hoisted the Harley J. Earl trophy, Keselowski explained that it’s business as usual for he and his team on Sunday and hopefully this is his year to get it done.

“I don’t feel like I have a ton of anxiety over it. I feel really well prepared,” Keselowski said. “I know my car drives great and we’ll have the speed to go with that. I just want to make sure I do my part to execute what I can execute. 

“I’m kind of somewhat reserved to the fact that the end of the race kind of is what it is and there’s gonna be 15 maybe 20 cars that will have a shot of winning in the last two dozen laps or so, and you just hope you’re around to be one of those cars and you hope that when the moment comes, if you are one of those cars that has a shot, that you do everything you can right and then the rest is kind of out of your control.

“I guess there’s some kind of peace in that, but outside of that, I just want to go lead a bunch of laps. The last few races here we’ve led the most laps and I always feel good about that, leading the most laps or leading a lot of laps or being up front the whole race because if the lottery ticket at the end doesn’t go your way at least you have something to hang your hat on, so I would say that’s probably where my focus is…

“Whatever happens at the end, we’re just gonna be in the right position and try not to do anything to mess that up execution-wise and we’ll see how the cards fall.”

Then come the trio of the most recent champions of the sport in Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, and Ryan Blaney that will hope to cement their legacies further on Sunday with a Daytona 500 victory.

Larson, who by all accounts is among the most talented drivers in all of motorsports, having won in almost every type of vehicle under the sun, including the 2022 Cup championship, is the elder statesman of his group, making his 11th start in the Great American Race.

Rolling off from 17th place, the driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will look to top his previous best finish of seventh in 2016 and 2019.

In addition to being able to lock down a Daytona 500 victory, a win this season could also set Larson up for a historic run, as he will also be attempting the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this May.

“I think for my NASCAR career, I want to win a lot more races,” Larson said. “I’ve only won 20-ish races. So yeah, I want to win a lot more of ’em. I want to win the big ones, as well. 

“I’ve been fortunate to win a lot of big ones. The Daytona 500, now that we’re going back to the Brickyard 400, those are the two that for me are next that I want to win. 

“Hopefully I feel like this is a great opportunity for us this weekend and would be amazing to win the Daytona 500, get the opportunity again to race at the Brickyard 400 later in year and try to win that one. 

“The good thing with Hendrick Motorsports is you know you’re going to have a good shot to win every time you show up at the track.”

Fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott, the 2020 champion, will be making his ninth start in the Great American Race as he hopes to improve his 2021 runner-up finish to bank a victory not only for himself, but also his crew chief Alan Gustafson, who grew up in nearby Ormond Beach.

“It would be awesome to check that box,” Elliott said. “We’ve had a couple of opportunities, but my biggest reason for really wanting to win the 500 is because Alan has never won it. He’s from down there and I know it’s a big deal to him. I just think it would be a really cool thing for him. Being a hometown guy like that, he’s come so close, so many times. When you work with a guy like that who has had a lot of success, it is kind of rare to be able to help him achieve something he has not already achieved. That would be a big one.”

Last, but not least is the sport’s most recent champion in Blaney, who will be looking to become one of a select few to take the momentum from winning the title right into winning the Daytona 500.

Blaney has been close to winning before, finishing second in 2020 and banking five top-10 finishes in his nine previous Daytona 500 starts. If he can avoid the trouble that seems to have followed him lately at the track, the No. 12 team could very well be in the mix to continue the hot streak at Daytona for Roger Penske.

“I feel like I’ve been close to this thing a couple of times,” said Blaney. “I had a good shot to win it a couple years ago and it just didn’t work out. When people ask me that, I mean, that’s the dream deal. You win the championship and then turn right around and win the 500. The last person to do it was Dale Jarrett in 2000 I think someone said, so it’s about time someone maybe does it again. We’ll see. 

“You just try to learn from experiences from previous races here and figure out, ‘Hey, what did we do well to put us in a spot to win? And what decisions did I make that kind of kept us out of victory lane?’ And you just hope to find yourself in those spots again and try to make the right decision, so we’ll see. 

“You just try to be rolling at the end of it and hopefully you’re there, but I’m excited for it. It should be great and try to add the 500 onto RP’s Rolex 24 that he got not too long ago here.”

Blaney will have to start from 32nd on the grid after getting turned and making heavy impact with the outside wall in his Duel race – marking the third straight race at Daytona where and errant push has landed him in the wall and necessitated a trip to the Infield Care Center.

Needless to say, Blaney was livid afterwards. A few days later, he’s put all of that behind him and is ready to get down to business on Sunday.

“I’m not gonna call out anybody, but I was just frustrated at getting hooked in the right-rear here multiple times,” Blaney said. “That’s frustrating when you take a 70g hit last year and I take a 55g hit this year. It’s just frustrating, so it was just aggressive pushes in Duels that I thought were a little bit over the top for the timing of it and for the moment that it was in the Duels, but I haven’t talked to anybody. Hopefully, I just don’t get hooked in the right-rear again because it’s no fun. It sucks.”

The 66th running of the Daytona 500 is scheduled for 2:30 pm ET on Sunday.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.