Normally about this time of year, I get asked a lot by the newer fans or the casual fans of NASCAR about why Daytona is so special. That’s a really good question with many different components to the answer.
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We run 36 events a year, and they all pay the same amount of points. Where you finish in Martinsville, our shortest race track, pays exactly the same in points as if you finish in the same position here in the Daytona 500. No matter what time of year or what race track you are at, they all pay out the same amount of points as what the drivers will receive on Sunday, Feb. 26.
Like I said, there are a lot of different reasons for mythology and aura of the Daytona 500.
It obviously is our premier event. It’s the first race of every season. I think it is safe to say it is the most anticipated race of any year by the fans, the drivers, the teams, the sponsors, etc.
Teams probably work the hardest and the longest on preparation for the Daytona 500. It pays the most money to win, by far, of any of the other 35 events. The money is great, obviously, but Daytona is more than that. Daytona is the cornerstone event of our entire sport.
Daytona is known as the birthplace of speed. Remember, before this track was built, they used to race stock cars on a combination of asphalt and the beach. This track was opened in 1959. The race on Feb. 22, 1959 featured Cotton Owens on the pole at a then-blistering 143 mph.
This place signaled to the racing world that it was going to be special when, in the very first NASCAR race, Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty crossed the finish line in a dead heat. NASCAR originally declared Beauchamp the winner, and he drove to Victory Lane. Lee Petty protested, though, and it took Bill France Sr. three days to review photos and newsreel footage before he finally declared Petty the winner.
So when you hear drivers today talking about how hard it is to win here, they mean it. The tone for that was set clear back in 1959. The reason it is so hard is the driver actually controls so little of his own destiny on the track.
You can have the best-handling race car. You can have the engine with the most horsepower. You can have a pit crew that is lightning fast. You can have all that, but you are still at the mercy of all those elements outside your control that surround you on the track. I think it is a clear example of why we have had 10 different winners in the past 10 Daytona 500s.
At most tracks, if you are leading taking the white flag to signal the last lap, the odds are pretty good in your favor that you will win the race. That’s not the case here at Daytona. History has shown us time and time again that the leader who takes the white flag is not the driver who pulls into Victory Lane.
I think you will find most NFL players do not consider their career totally complete unless they have won a Super Bowl. The same can be said for MLB players who want to win the World Series. Over in the IndyCar series, their cornerstone event is obviously the Indianapolis 500. Why? Well, it is the premier event of that series. For the Formula 1 series, which races all over the globe in some unbelievable locations, the signature event is Monaco.
That’s how the Daytona 500 is viewed in the sport of NASCAR. You have big names in our sport who have never won the Daytona 500. These are drivers such as Ned Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and on and on. To some drivers, it came relatively easy. Look at Richard Petty, who has won this event an amazing seven times.
In between the big names who have never won the 500 and the King who has won the most, you have drivers like my buddy Darrell Waltrip. It took him 17 years of trying to finally win his only Daytona 500. I was fortunate to be the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt when he finally won his only Daytona 500, in 1998. As great a driver as he was, and with as many other races as he won at Daytona, Dale won only that one 500.
Think about how heartbreaking 1990 must have been. Dale is leading the race on the white flag lap going into Turn 3. Suddenly he has a tire go down and Derrick Cope, who was running second, comes home the winner. For as tough-as-nails a racer as Big E was, I just wish everyone could have been in Victory Lane in 1998 to see the complete relief Dale enjoyed after winning the Daytona 500.
If you win the Daytona 500, it changes your life, and stays with you the rest of your life. Twenty-two years later, Derrick Cope still is introduced as the winner of the Daytona 500. Now, in addition to winning the 500 with Dale, I also was the crew chief in 1992 when Davey Allison won it.
There were 22 other times in my career when I was able to visit Victory Lane as a crew chief — however, when I am introduced at speaking events or appearances, they always say, “He’s a two-time Daytona 500-winning crew chief.”
That’s what I meant when I said it stays with you for life. It’s just that monumental in the life of a NASCAR participant.
Some fans might think racing at Daytona and Talladega are the same. I mean, on the surface, they look about the same. Talladega is a little bigger, but they both are superspeedways and use restrictor plates to keep the speeds around the 200 mph mark.
But if you take a closer look, they really are different. Daytona is much narrower. It’s a tighter race track than Talladega. Don’t get me wrong, neither place is easy to race. Daytona is just tougher.
Many times you will hear us say that Talladega is all about horsepower while Daytona is all about handling. It’s because Daytona is not as big and wide, with the sweeping turns you have at Talladega we say that.
Sure, winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship definitely is the ultimate goal. But pulling into Victory Lane after winning the Daytona 500 is about the pinnacle of any stock car driver’s career.
So we are now here in Daytona, and trust me, everyone just seems ready. I am hearing the same thing across the board from the fans, the drivers, the crew members.
I think we are riding a wave of so much excitement from last year — when, a short 3 1/2 months ago, the season ended in a tie between our two top drivers and came down to a tie-breaker for Tony Stewart to be name our champion.
Oh, and we don’t dare overlook the momentum from last year’s Daytona 500 that set the tone for our 2011 season. Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere and won our sport’s biggest race. He was a virtual unknown, driving for a legendary NASCAR team, and he turned our sport upside down.
Could something similar happen this year? It absolutely could, and the really cool thing is, we only have a few days until we find out which driver pulls into the Daytona 500 Victory Lane and has his — or, this year, her — life changed forever!