Tag Archives: Jeff Gordon

No Ordinary Rookie

 

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Past meets future as Jeff Gordon passes the torch to a new generation, and a new legacy for the 24.

Coming into a big time sport as a rookie with enormous hype is one of the tougher challenges in sports. The pressure, the change in lifestyle, the new found fame, it’s no wonder so many rookies have crumbled under such expectations, some to the point of no recovery.

But imagine the challenge when not only you are hyped up to be the next great thing, BUT you are also the immediate successor to a legend. And by legend, I mean legend. I’m not talking about trying to replace an all-star like Jason Heyward in your lineup, or Joe Johnson on your basketball team. I’m talking about trying to replace Babe Ruth or Kobe Bryant.

Jeff Gordon is in the argument for the greatest NASCAR driver of all-time. Not just of his era, but of any era, and his three year stretch from 1996 thru 1998 is still one of the most dominant periods in modern American sports, but that’s another story for another day. Being tabbed to replace Jeff Gordon, with Gordon going out while making NASCAR’s version of the Final Four and competing for a fifth championship, has few valid comparisons in sports history.

While similar to replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, or Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, it’s still different. In football you still have 52 other guys on the roster. You still have the same team, with the same logo, and many of the same players. You still have the same history of an organization that existed before that particular legend became a part of it. At the end of the day, you’re still one of many people to play quarterback for the 49ers or for the Colts.

What Chase is doing replacing Jeff Gordon is almost unparalleled. The only person to ever win a Sprint Cup race in a car numbered 24 is, for the time being anyway, Jeff Gordon. The commercial isn’t hyperbole or inaccurate in anyway, 24 is more than a number. It is a legacy all on it’s own, and it’s a legacy created by one man.

But within the past five to seven years it began to dawn on us all that at some point, that one man would no longer continue to drive competitively at this level. So what then? Would Rick Hendrick, the owner who took a chance on the fast but crash happy 20-year-old kid back in the early 90s retire the number? Or would he look for a successor? And would it be an established veteran or would he try to repeat history with another young hotshot?

In February of 2011 the plan began to take shape when Rick Hendrick signed a 15-year-old high school freshman from Georgia to a multi-year driver agreement.

The driver? Chase Elliott. You know, son of another NASCAR legend, Georgia’s favorite son, Bill Elliott.

By 2013 Elliott was winning races in the truck series, and by 2014 was running full-time in the Xfinity Series, where as an 18-year-old rookie he not only won three races, he also took home Most Popular Driver, Rookie of the Year, and the series championship.

By January of 2015, with Jeff Gordon announcing that 2015 would be his last season of competitive racing, Elliott was tabbed with the most pressure packed responsibility since Kevin Harvick slid into the seat of Richard Childress’ GM Goodwrench Chevrolet in February of 2001 following the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Fast forward to 2016 with Elliott coming off a 2015 season in which he followed up his championship by finishing second in points and winning another race. For the first time since November of 1992, a premier series NASCAR event was set to take place without Jeff Gordon in it.

However, the 24 car would be there. But with a new look, though the number kept it’s same font and style, new sponsors, and more importantly, a new driver.

All eyes were on the 20-year-old who promptly went out and won the pole for the biggest race of the year. Typically, the fastest qualifier is awarded the Coors Light Pole Award. Only Elliott isn’t of legal drinking age and ineligible for such an aware, or to carry such a decal on his racecar.

So here we are, hot shot 20-year-old kid considered the next big thing, replacing one of the greatest to ever participate in the sport and taking over a car number that’s a legacy and as iconic as almost any number in sports, on the pole for the biggest race of the year, and, oh yeah, in addition to the huge shoes of Jeff Gordon to fill, there’s the small matter of being Bill Elliott’s son.

Nobody can sustain these kind of expectations and possibly live up to the hype, right? Surely the kid is going to crumble. Maybe not beyond repair, but we should be pumping the brakes a bit on his rookie season, no? Give him a couple of years to really get his feet wet and settle into his role, right?

No, not this rookie. Not this rookie who, well, really doesn’t seem like a rookie.

We know what happened at Daytona, the 500 turned into a disaster early. Immediately the criticism began, and it looked like maybe the moment was too big right now. It was too much pressure. Maybe Rick Hendrick had brought him along too soon.

Or maybe any such notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Elliott rebounded from that 37th place finish with a strong top ten run at his home track of Atlanta the next week, only to have a very questionable pit strategy decision by crew chief Alan Gustafson cost him multiple positions late in the race at Las Vegas and leave him mired back in the pack after running up in the top ten all race long. Eventually Elliott would get collected in a wreck not of his own making and finish 38th.

In an interview following the Las Vegas wreck Elliott seemed extremely frustrated, and placed a lot of the blame, needlessly I might add, on himself. He knew what was happening. He had wrecked in two of the first three races, and the naysayers were going to get louder.

Well that’s as loud as they’ve gotten. Since the wreck at Vegas Elliott has done nothing but silence even the most skeptical of critics. Over the last six races Elliott has an average finish of 8.5 and has moved himself solidly into playoff position. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story. He has established himself as a viable threat to win races.

Over the last four races Elliott has finishes of 6th, 20th, 5th, and 4th. In three of those four races he found himself in second position at some point in the race’s final 15%, and without late cautions at California, Texas and Bristol, could very well be looking at a streak of three runner-up finishes in his last four races, though many would argue without a caution at Texas, he may very well have won.

But to truly appreciate what Elliott has done so far this year, you have to put it into perspective by comparing it to the debuts of some other stars in recent, or not so recent, memory.

The chart below illustrates how some of NASCAR’s top drivers and strongest rookie campaigns compare to Elliott’s after the first eight events of their first full-time season. With rookies being rookies and apt to putting cars into fences, the chart also looks at their average finish by taking away the two worst performances in the season’s first eight races, to give a better indicator of how they finished when they, well, actually finished.

Age Top 5 Top 10 Avg St Avg Fin Best 6 Avg Points
Chase Elliott 20 2 5 12 15.8 8.5 12
Jeff Gordon 21 2 4 10.7 16.5 10.7 12
Kyle Busch 20 1 2 24.3 21.4 15.7 25
Jimmie Johnson 26 1 5 14.7 13.3 7.2 7
Tony Stewart 28 0 2 9.9 16.8 11.7 10
Dale Earnhardt Sr 28 2 3 9.1 11.8 8.3 8
Bill Elliott 27 4 5 11 11.5 6.8 5
Dale Earnhardt Jr 25 1 2 8.5 22 16.3 19
Ryan Newman 24 2 4 13.4 19.8 12.8 16
Davey Allison 26 1 2 7.4 18.8 18.8 21
Matt Kenseth 28 0 2 17.1 21.8 15.7 21
Joey Logano 19 0 0 25.4 29.1 25.3 33
Kyle Larson 21 2 4 16.4 16.1 10.7 14
Jeff Gordon 2015 1 5 11.7 16.3 9.3 9

 

*note, Davey Allison didn’t attempt races six through eight, but came back and won race number nine at Talladega, and won again at Dover, giving him two wins in his first eight starts of his rookie, but not within the first eight races of the season*

Elliott compares favorably to the majority on this list. In fact, factoring age, depending on which aspect you value more heavily, an argument could be made that his start to his career has been as impressive, if not more, than anyone on this list.

The only drivers on this list to have five top ten finishes among the first eight races are Jimmie Johnson and then the father and son duo of Bill and Chase and Elliott. Bill Elliott was the only one to finish in the top five on more than two occasions, and the only one sitting in the top five in points (he would finish 3rd and capture his first career win in the season finale at Riverside) at this juncture of the season. However, it should also be noted that the elder Elliott had run 21 races the year before (not a full season) and despite having never run 75% of the schedule, had started nearly 100 races before the 1983 season began, so he wasn’t exactly a rookie.

While the Elliotts are the only ones on the list with five top tens and more than one top five finish, the Earnhardts are the only ones who won a race this early in the going of their rookie season. There is a reason NASCAR is known as such a family sport, after all.

Elliott’s average finish of 15.8 is topped by the asterisked elder Elliott, and then only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. I guess that’s not bad company. I mean, the two non Elliotts only combined to win nearly 150 races and 13 championships between them.

And just for good measure, I took the time to see how Elliott is doing through eight races this year as compared to that guy he took over for, that Gordon fella.

I’d say he’s doing a mighty fine job stepping into those shoes in the 24 car. And he’s only trending upwards.

I said weeks ago I thought Richmond would be Elliott’s first win. His career average finish in the Xfinity Series there is 2.5, having finished second on two occasions, won once, and fifth in his other appearance. With the trend of how the team has been running lately, that prediction may very well come true.

But even if it doesn’t, Elliott has proven Hendrick knew what he was doing, and that the 24 would be in good hands and Elliott is not only capable of simply carrying the number into the future, but he may very well be able to give that number a new legacy for an entirely new generation of fans.

 

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Chase Elliott Martinsville Preview

This weekend Chase Elliott returns to Martinsville, sight of an inauspicious Cup debut last spring where Elliott quickly learned some lessons about driving Cup cars. Clearly, this lesson, along with many others, was not for naught, as Elliott enters the season’s sixth race 16th in points, but already with three top ten finishes. I could go on and on about how impressive he has been to start the season, but I’ll get into that a later date, this is about looking ahead to Martinsville where Elliott will debut the 3M colors.

As mentioned, Elliott’s debut at Martinsville didn’t exactly go like he wanted, and in looking at his history at the track, it might be, outside of Talladega, his worst track among NASCAR’s top three divisions.

Aside from last year’s Cup race, Elliott has made two Camping World Truck Series starts at the paperclip shaped half mile, and his best finish was 6th in 2013. He finished 20th in his other start at Martinsville, though it wasn’t completely reflective of how he ran that day as late problems hampered his day.

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Chase Elliott’s Sprint Cup Debut was a rough one at Martinsville, expect the young man to perform much better this time around.

All totaled though, Elliott has an average starting position of 15.7 and average finish of 21.3 in his three total starts at the Virginia track. Last year’s race hardly ever got started as Elliott fell victim to the accordion effect of an incident in front of him and plowed into the back of a car early in the going. The incident was a lesson on the impetus of track position, as back in the back, bad things can happen.

But don’t let this fool you regarding Elliott’s short track prowess. When it comes to getting around tracks under a mile in length, Elliott is clearly not his father’s son.

Elliott has made 19 starts on short tracks in NASCAR’s top three series, and 15 of those starts resulted in top ten finishes, with two of the four finishes outside of the top 10 coming here at Martinsville.

Elliott’s career numbers at short tracks include an average start of 9.2 and an average finish of 9.4. His driver rating at short tracks is an impressive 100.4, and that’s with those Martinsville showings weighing the number down.

Factoring in his performance in ARCA and in the K&N series at tracks that NASCAR’s top three series also visit, Elliott has 30 starts on short tracks. He’s finished in the top ten in a remarkable 25 of them.

Elliott probably wanted the week off least of all, as he and his team had really picked up some momentum at the end of the west coast swing, and had clearly established themselves as a weekly contender and top ten, maybe even top five car. But Martinsville is as different from the tracks we’ve just run on as Daytona was, so it’s an entirely new animal.

But confidence should be sky-high, despite his woes in the past at Clay Earl’s little racetrack. The organization he races for, Hendrick Motorsports, absolutely dominates Martinsville. And his particular 24 team was victorious with Jeff Gordon the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited here last fall as Gordon took home an immensely popular victory securing himself into NASCAR’s version of the Final Four.

I don’t expect Elliott to win on Sunday, but I also don’t expect him to continue on the trend he’s been on at the track either. Martinsville is a grueling track and some veteran NASCAR stars still haven’t mastered it. But one of Elliott’s biggest strengths is the ability to manage his car, tires, and equipment, and that could be a big key on Sunday.

Look for him to hang around the top 15 all day, and if he can stay on the lead lap, look for him to be strong at the end and push for a top ten finish. That first win will likely have to wait, but there’s another short track in Virginia we’ll be visiting soon that may be ripe for that to take place.

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Gordon, Not Earnhardt, is NASCAR’s Michael Jordan

What is, an unpopular opinion for $200, Alex?

It may be deemed blasphemous in some circles, but I’m here to tell you that Jeff Gordon is NASCAR’s Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan is saying goodbye on Sunday after 23 years of being at the pinnacle of his sport.

Yes, I know the comparisons have long been between Dale Earnhardt and Michael Jordan, but I’m going to argue that Dale Earnhardt was more of a Magic Johnson, paving the way for Michael Jordan, err, Jeff Gordon.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird catapulted the NBA to the forefront of American sports in the 80s. Their rivalry, their flair, their skill, and their professionalism put the NBA on the map in a way it had never before been. Michael Jordan took the NBA from there and elevated it to another stratosphere. Jordan took the game global.

Much the same story occurred with NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt put the sport on the map. He made it okay to be a NASCAR fan. He made it okay to admit you tuned in on Sundays to a bunch of cars driving in circles. His clashes with Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott in the 80s took the sport from the back pages of newspapers around the country to the front pages on Monday mornings.

It was Jeff Gordon however who made NASCAR a national mainstay and took the sport from the deep south and integrated it nationwide. While many will lament the loss of it’s southern roots, those in NASCAR certainly don’t lament the millions upon millions of dollars corporate America has invested into the sport, thanks in large part to Jeff Gordon.

Gordon, without the southern accent and with the GQ looks, took NASCAR to Wall Street. He took NASCAR to corporate America. And corporate America ate it up. Gordon helped eliminate (largely) the stereotypes associated with NASCAR. You didn’t have to sound like an uneducated hick to be a NASCAR superstar. You didn’t have to be from the south to be a superstar in NASCAR. And you no longer had to be “redneck” to be a fan.

Gordon became the first NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live. And whether you liked NASCAR, or sports in general, you knew who Jeff Gordon was. And if you did like NASCAR, Jeff Gordon was as polarizing as they come.

Gordon’s career has run full circle. When he entered the sport as a 21 year old phenom there was a ton of interest as to whether this hot shot from California, where in the words of legendary Harry Hogge , “You’re not really anything”, could cut it in the rough and tumble world of stock car racing. Once Gordon proved not only that he could cut it, but that he wasn’t afraid to push back against the best of the best and would be intimidated by no one, fans began to turn on the newcomer to the sport. Gordon quickly became public enemy number one, and it was a role he embraced. The more they booed, the more he was winning.

Gordon’s 1998 season of 13 wins and 28 top ten finishes in a single season (33 races) might possibly be the greatest single season in the modern era, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest single seasons turned in in American sports history. To compare, it ranks up there with the Bulls 70 win season, and, in many ways, surpasses it, thanks to his utter dominance that year and the distance between himself and his closest championship competitors, Mark Martin (7 wins and 26 top 10 finishes himself) and Dale Jarrett (3 wins 22 top 10s). Gordon won the championship by 364 points over Martin, who enjoyed a season that in all but rare instances would have easily been enough to walk home with a championship. As evidenced by the fact that Jarrett, who had a good year in his own right, finished a whopping 709 points behind Gordon.

To say people grew tired of him winning every other week is a very, very mild understatement.

But as his career cycled through into it’s twilight, guys like Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch (and more recently Joey Logano) have assumed Gordon’s place at the top of the “NASCAR’s Most Hated” list. As for Gordon, he might very well be the second most popular driver in the sport today. And it’s easily arguable that come Sunday at Homestead, he will be THE most popular driver on the track.

For years, Jeff Gordon wins were met with boos and with angry fans, upset that “Wonder Boy” had won yet another race. But when Gordon took the checkered flag at Martinsville a few weeks ago to secure his place in the championship round of NASCAR’s chase, his win was met with thunderous applause, and an ovation that seemed to last for several minutes. It was the kind of moment that reminded us why we watched sports. For a man that had won 93 career events, there was as much raw emotion and joy in this win as there was when he shed tears in victory lane at Charlotte in 21 and a half years earlier when he won his first career race.

I’m sure it was something new for the four time champion, and I’m sure it is something he will never forget. Well, unless he manages to top it this Sunday by taking what could well be the most popular championship in the sports history.

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It is no coincidence that Jeff Gordon made his debut in the same race “The King”, Richard Petty, he of 200 wins and seven championships, made his final start. Never before has there been such an official changing of the guard.

But it wasn’t just the symbolism in Gordon’s career beginning where Petty’s ended. It was Gordon’s arrival on the scene and willingness, and ability, to go toe to toe with, and beat, the sports biggest stars from the get go.

gordonearnhardt

In his first start at Daytona, Gordon out-dueled Bill Elliott in the Gatorade 125 mile qualifying race, and then finished 5th in the Daytona 500. The next year in the Busch Clash All-Star race, Gordon taught the Daytona master himself, Dale Earnhardt, a thing or two with a gutsy move around the Intimidator with just under two laps left to steal a victory.

It was perhaps that moment where Gordon and Earnhardt had their Magic and Michael moment. It was then that the world saw Gordon wasn’t going to back down from anyone, and he was here and here to take the throne atop American motorsports. And it was here where Dale Earnhardt realized this was going to happen, and there really wasn’t going to be anything he could do about it.

93 wins later, four championships, three Daytona 500 trophies, SIX Southern 500 wins, 3 Coca-Cola 600 and five Brickyard 400 triumphs later, Jeff Gordon gets the opportunity to do what few in sports are afforded the chance to do; leave on top. The odds are against him in Homestead, but don’t tell him that. They were against him when the Chase started, and yet, here he is, one victory away from a fifth championship to wrap up one of the greatest professional sports careers this country has ever seen.

It would be the perfect swan song and one of the greatest goodbyes in sports history. It would be the goodbye Michael Jordan should have had.

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Ranking Three Decades of Daytona 500s In My Life

There's really nothing quite like the Daytona 500.

There’s really nothing quite like the Daytona 500.

So as we embark on the 57th Daytona 500 this Sunday, I decided to take a look at all the ones run in my lifetime. Fascinating enough, I actually have vivid memories of all but three of them. And that’s rather unfortunate, since one of those probably is going to rank pretty high on this list. 2015 will mark the 31st Daytona 500 of my lifetime, so how would I rank the three decades worth of Daytona 500s I have seen? Keep in mind, this isn’t based strictly on entertainment value, or the competitiveness of the race, it ranks on my level of enjoyment and the memories I personally have of the race, along with where it ranks in my personal lore. So while one race that’s vastly less competitive and enjoyable to watch from a neutral fan’s perspective might rank at the bottom for some, it might rank near the top for me dependent upon the characters at play.

32) 1992 Davey Allison- What could have been one of the more exciting 500s of my lifetime, on lap 92 became the worst. A massive crash on the backstretch eliminated essentially all but one or two contenders, and left nobody to challenge Davey Allison. Among the contenders, Bill Elliott, who, if you don’t understand why that’s important, I wonder if you know me at all. Making it worse was that Elliott had spent the week establishing himself as pretty much the favorite, represented by the fact that he was the leader when the shenanigans took place. Also taken out in the crash were guys like Waltrip, Petty (making his final start in the Daytona 500), and Earnhardt. Ernie Irvan became the first thing in sports I ever felt anything close to actual hatred for. And this is where it was born, as my dislike from previous wrecks he’d caused turned to hate with this one.

31) 2003 Michael Waltrip- Rain shortened? Check. My favorite driver in contention then having problems and finishing well back in the pack? Check. Lack of drama and excitement late? Check. No thank you.

30) 2009 Matt Kenseth- Despite the fact that I was in attendance, seeing Matt Kenseth (who I don’t particularly dislike, he just doesn’t move the needle for me) win a rain shortened race that was constantly threatened by inclement weather just didn’t provide much for me. The only redeeming part was that Kyle Busch, who dominated the race, was swept up in a massive wreck triggered by Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was not on the same lap as the leaders.

29) 1995 Sterling Marlin- Despite Bill Elliott beginning a new chapter by returning home to Dawsonville, this race lacked appeal for me, personally. Perhaps his cut tire that took a contending car out of contention had a lot to do with that. Then again, I say contending, I mean contending for second. Elliott himself told me at an autograph session later that week that, “we had enough for Earnhardt, but I don’t know about Marlin”. In other words, Sterling Marlin had them covered. For Earnhardt, it was just more of the same, coming up just short.

28) 1986 Geoff Bodine- The fuel mileage game is one may NASCAR fans turn their nose up, and with good reason. While the drama aspect is certainly there, there just seems to be something anti-climactic about watching a race get won on the basis of getting better gas mileage. However, when it comes to the Daytona 500, you’re there to win, any way possible. And that’s what Bodine did in handing Rick Hendrick his first of many Daytona 500 trophies. That the fuel game bit Dale Earnhardt, beginning what was an incredible streak of poor luck in the race, is about all the keeps this from being at the very bottom of the list.

27) 2006 Jimmie Johnson- My record for attending Daytona 500s is not so sterling, as yet another one was impacted by rain. While the race did see its conclusion, I suffered through a cold mist all afternoon and early evening long. Jimmie Johnson took the victory with Chad Knaus suspended, thanks in part to Casey Mears who went with his fellow Californian as opposed to his fellow Dodge driver late in the race, content to finish second rather than charge for the win. This has never sat well with me.

26) 2013 Jimmie Johnson- The Danica mania was pretty much the only enjoyable aspect of this parade fest that was won by five time champion Jimmie Johnson.

25) 2010- Jamie McMurray- Delays for track issues pushed the finish of this one well into the night. A late charge by Dale Earnhardt Jr in an effort to steal the win from McMurray was pretty much it for excitement, aside from a lap one wreck that eliminated Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick, who was making her first start. Jamie McMurray being a likable guy, and a guy in major need of a career revival helped add a feel good aspect to an otherwise un-entertaining day and evening.

24) 1994- Sterling Marlin- Though it wasn’t quite the story of Michael Waltrip, Marlin’s victory in the 1994 Daytona 500 was an extremely long time coming. A career full of close calls and second place finishes, Marlin finally broke through, and I can’t think of anyone who wasn’t happy for him.

23) 2012 Matt Kenseth- NASCAR’s first foray into “Monday Night NASCAR”. The delay from Sunday afternoon to Monday night both took away from the event, and added to it. The Juan Pablo Montoya jet dryer incident and the thought that Dave Blaney might win the thing were the only things that made watching the Roush Fenway Show bearable.

22) 1996 Dale Jarrett- It was the Dale and Dale Show Part II. Unfortunately, this one carried much less excitement, much less drama, and was just a more boring version of the original, though it did mark the third time in four years that Earnhardt came across the finish line in second place.

21) 1989 Darrell Waltrip- Before there was Dale Earnhardt, when it came to legendary drivers being able to win everything under the sun in the sport except the Daytona 500, there was Darrell Waltrip. But in his 17th try, in car 17, starting in 17th place……. But aside from that, Ken Schrader absolutely owned the event. Aside from Earnhardt in 1990, no driver dominated the 500 and came up empty in a way like Schrader did in 1989. It could’ve been a win that would’ve completely altered his career.

20) 2008 Ryan Newman- Newman, like Kenseth, isn’t much of a needle mover in my book. In fact, if anything, I have a dislike for him. That said, the racing itself was quality and the finish was exciting. Watching teammates work together, even though I disliked them both, was fun. Tony Stewart further cemented his Dale Earnhardt type legacy (more on this later this week) at Daytona by contending, and even leading late, and yet again, failing to win.

19) 2015- Joey Logano- At this point I was still very anti team Logano, and that would only continue to grow as the year went on. The unfortunate part of this particular race was the great finish we got robbed of by a late caution. While not shown in the above video, before this particular yellow flew, they were three wide at the head of the field for the win in the final ten laps. It was going to be an incredible finish, and while the actual finish proved less dramatic, the anticipation of what seemed to be coming, and the show these guys put on keeps this from tumbling too far down the list for the simple sake of who won.

18) 2000 Dale Jarrett- This was quite possibly one of the least competitive Daytona 500s I’ve ever seen. So why in the world is it this high? Because having not won a race since 1994, Bill Elliott had won the Gatorade 125 the previous Thursday, the first time he’d won anything in 5 1/2 years. So my anticipation entering Sunday was the highest it had been in a long while. While Elliott failed to win, he finished 3rd, in what would be the last great run and finish by Elliott in his homegrown team from Dawsonville. Had Elliott, or even Johnny Benson, which would’ve gone down as an upset on the levels of Derrike Cope in 1990, been able to win, this snooze fest suddenly becomes one of the most memorable Daytona 500s I’ve ever seen. Of coruse, it ended with Jarrett snatching his third Harley J. Earl trophy.

17) 2002 Ward Burton- The Sterling Marlin tire tug will go down in infamy, though I’m not really sure why. Marlin knew he was going to have to pit to fix it regardless, so he didn’t really lose all that much. But the drama in the final few laps, and Ward Burton breaking through with a career making victory were also key elements to the first Daytona 500 ever held that didn’t include Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt.

16) 1991 Ernie Irvan- As mentioned, my disdain for Ernie Irvan didn’t begin in 1992, it began in 1990, so by the time the 1991 Daytona 500 rolled around, I didn’t care for the guy. So while many ate up the underdog, rags to riches, just a year ago was wondering if his career was over, story, I didn’t. That said, the race had compelling story lines. Wallace and Waltrip involved in a late crash, setting the stage where Dale Earnhardt (shocker) had a chance to win the Daytona 500, and for what wouldn’t be the last time in his career, crashed in the final laps off of turn two while battling for 2nd place with guys named Allison and Petty.

15) 1990 Derrike Cope- Quite possibly, as it pertains to the on track racing and entertainment value, this one ranks at the absolute bottom. To say Dale Earnhardt had them absolutely covered is one of the biggest understatements I’ve ever made. And I’m not using hyperbole. He spent the entire weekend proving time and time again that his car was the baddest around, and nobody was in his zip code. But a late caution and ensuing pit stop by Earnhardt gave the field a chance, and while the first 199 miles were absolutely dreadful, what happened in the final mile facilitated one of the greatest upsets that we’ve ever seen…in any sport.

 

14) 2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr- So I’m one for three on the weather when it comes to attending the Daytona 500, and even this one started out cold and rainy. But the skies cleared, just enough so Dale Earnhardt could smile down on his son as he scored his first career Daytona 500 victory. I wonder if part of Earnhardt also smiled at the man who his son passed for the win, Tony Stewart, as Stewart saw the first of what has become multiple late race opportunities for victory slip away. The race itself however saw the field incredibly spread out with limited action. But the Earnhardt/Stewart story line playing out helped atone for that. So did being there for my very first Daytona 500.

13) 1987 Bill Elliott- While not as dominant as he was in 1985, in 1987 Elliott set the qualifying record at Daytona, traveling around at over 210 mph and led over half the race en route to his second Daytona triumph in three years. The show itself was nothing special, Elliott just outran everyone, as he was apt to do in those days. But to hear Elliott tell it later, the excitement was completely inside the car. At the speeds they were traveling, Elliott would later tell people that he was out of control all race long. That sounds fun, between 200 and 210 mph and completely out of control. But you’d never know it watching him run.

12) 2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr- The race itself was delayed it seemed, forever, but once it got going, racing against the threat of rain, the drivers put on a whale of a show. The pure elation in Junior following his victory was alone enough to make anyone smile.

11) 1988 Bobby Allison- Perhaps this was what Dale Earnhardt envisioned would one day happen with him and Dale Jr…father against son for the Daytona 500, and the father still showing that even over the age of 50, he’s still got it. Had we known then, what we know now, about the absolute tragedy this family would go on to endure (Bobby suffering a life threatening, brain damaging accident just months later at Pocono, Davey’s younger brother Clifford dying in a crash at Michigan 4 years after that, and Davey dying in a helicopter crash just a year later) this moment would have been treasured even more. As it stands, it’s one of the greatest stories in Daytona 500 history, and the lore was only enhanced with the tragedies that befell the famed “Alabama Gang”. This race is actually the first racing memory I have, but not for the father/son finish, but the horrific accident that Richard Petty endured that had many fearing the sport had lost its greatest driver ever in its greatest race. Unfortunately, that fear would of course come true 13 years later.

10) 2007 Kevin Harvick- Had Mark Martin held on, this would move up the list. It’s not that I’m bothered that Harvick won, I love it, but this was one Mark wanted, needed even. The disappointment at losing by a few feet couldn’t have been more evident for a guy who was such the sentimental pick in seeking his first Daytona 500 victory. After watching Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch stink up the show before the two tangled and changed the outcome of the race, this was a snoozer. But once those two tangled, business picked up, in a big way. It was a mixed emotions kinda household, my cousin was a die-hard Harvick fan, so we were happy for Harvick, and for him. But we wanted the old guy to finally win one. But there was no denying how spectacular the finish was.

9) 1998 Dale Earnhardt- The 1998 Daytona 500 itself was not a good race. I know NASCAR fans will hate me for this, but it wasn’t. Dale Earnhardt flat dominated it, which, also made it similar to many previous 500s, though, Earnhardt dominated this one even more than most before. He equaled his 1993 laps led total for the second most laps led in a Daytona 500 in his career. What keeps this race from the bottom is the obvious. Unlike those others he dominated, this time, in his 20th try, having led in 17 of his previous 19, he actually won the thing. That’s what keeps this otherwise relatively boring show from bringing up the rear. The receiving-line on pit road is still one of the greatest moments in sports history.

8) 2011 Trevor Bayne- The tandem racing was a polarizing aspect of the racing on the track, but there was no question the entertainment value it provided with the intensity in the final twenty laps. Unfortunately it created a lot of accidents. It also created one of the more memorable Daytona 500 losses by anyone in history, with David Ragan’s untimely error (that ultimately completely rerouted his career) paving the way for the most unlikely of winners in Trevor Bayne, making just his second career start. Seeing the famous Wood Brothers back in victory lane was pretty cool too. And oh yeah, Tony Stewart, another opportunity just missed.

7) 2016 Denny Hamlin- The thoughts of this one are all over the map. From Chase Elliott being on the pole and leading those first laps making this a Daytona 500 I’ll never forget to Elliott wrecking within 20 laps turning it one I don’t want to recall, this race ran the gauntlet of emotions. The Gibbs Toyotas stunk up the show most of the day, which worked out okay as I hosted a party at my house that day and most of the crowd was not NASCAR fans. The goal was to win a few over of course, but I figured the dull race hurt that. Fortunately, the amount of people there kept everyone entertained until the end. And then the race took over. One lap does not a race make, but in trying to get new fans, having the sport’s biggest event end like that, it didn’t help get a few more eyeballs and create a little bit more bar talk.

6) 1993 Dale Jarrett- Here you had it again, Dale Earnhardt in position to win the Daytona 500, a handful of laps to go, and then….. oh, you’ve heard this story before? The 1993 tale though added a little something extra with second generation driver Dale Jarrett marking his arrival on the scene, while his legendary father memorably called him home from the CBS booth.

5) 1997 Jeff Gordon- If I ever wish to be reminded why I didn’t like Jeff Gordon during his prime, I simply watch this race. This race was a simple incident in turn two away from probably being the easy choice for number one on this list. Instead it falls. I still claim that without that wreck giving Gordon his teammates, Elliott wins his third Daytona 500. The hurt from this one getting away will never go away. But neither will the memory of watching Elliott mix it up again with the big dogs after the worst year of his career in 1996. Elliott leading that race, in control, with ten laps left….. was something I hadn’t experienced in years. For Earnhardt, winding up wrecked while battling for second place in the closing laps? Well, it was the second time in six he had experienced that.

4) 2001 Michael Waltrip- This was easily the hardest to rank, because in light of the tragic events in turn four, it’s hard to call this entertaining. But it’s easily the most memorable ever, and we can’t forget, the racing throughout was top notch. Michael Waltrip, he of over 400 starts without a win, breaking through to the delight of his brother and proving Dale Earnhardt right while watching Earnhardt choose not to be the aggressor for the first time in his career was something else. Personally, watching Bill Elliott begin his career revival by leading the field to the green from the pole in and of itself catapulted this event into the upper half. Throw in everything else surrounding this race, and it’s place among the top tier is understandable.

3) 2005 Jeff Gordon- You want to see the biggest stars in the sport do battle for the biggest prize? Just watch the final few laps of this Daytona 500, and watch as the man who was the best of the bunch at the time found a way to get it done. As mentioned earlier, Tony Stewart had begun to cement a Dale Earnhardt type legacy at Daytona, and the 2005 version helped contribute to that. Stewart again found himself in position to win, and again, failed to do so. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

2) 1999 Jeff Gordon- The only way to top 2005 was to do the same thing, with the biggest names in the business, but this time, add some sort of mythological symbolism to the story. I give you 1999. Earnhardt vs Gordon. Just like Magic to Michael in the 1991 NBA Finals, this was Gordon seizing the throne. While the on track show was perhaps better in 2005, this transcending moment elevates this a wee bit higher.

1) 1985 Bill Elliott- Remember when I mentioned this was about my personal enjoyment and memory of the race, and personal feelings about its significance? Well this is where it gets personal. The whipping Elliott put on the field in 1985 is only joined in its own special zip code outside of this world by what Earnhardt did in 1990, though the superiority of Elliott’s car was greater than that of Earnhardt’s. The difference of course was Elliott held on to win. A restart with a lap to go seemed to give hope to the other drivers, though I think they all knew better. The quickness with which Elliott raced away to the lead was evidence of how dominant this car was in 1985. Truth be told, when it came to superspeedways, the Elliotts dominated them in a way few teams have ever dominated American sports.

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The Daytona 500, A Half Century of Heartbreak

They say that nobody remembers who finishes in second place. Whoever says that clearly doesn’t understand the history of the Daytona 500.

Not only do we often remember the drivers who lost the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion, sometimes we remember these victims of soul crushing defeats more than the winner themselves. Take 1979, do you remember who won? I bet you recall who wrecked in turn three on the last lap though. Quick, who led them across the line in 1990? Need a second? Ok, who cut a tire while leading a mere mile from victory? Do you remember the man who won in 2007, or the man he beat to the stripe by agonizing inches?

While we celebrate and memorialize the triumphs, we also vividly recall devastating and gut wrenching shortcomings just as much, if not more.

What is considered by many to be one of the greatest triumphs in Daytona 500 history is not remembered for the race itself, which was rather pedestrian, but for the immense heartbreak the winner had endured in prior Daytona 500s.

So while many will spend the week lauding the victors in Daytona 500s past, let’s not forget the most agonizing defeats.

Beginning tomorrow I’ll count down the 10 who have suffered the biggest heartbreak at the hands of The Great American Race during the past 50 years. But to get things started, I’ll list some that just missed the list, including a look at a Daytona 500 that took the wind right out of the sails of not a driver, but rather we the fans. And no, not 2001, that one is discussed enough, besides, its tragedy wasn’t yet known at the time of the conclusion of the event.

Honorable Mentions

The Fans, 1992

Weather had never postponed the Daytona 500 until 2012, but that doesn’t mean it never left the fans holding the bag by denying the fans a true finish.

The 1965, 2003 and 2009 versions were cut short due to rain, and each left fans feeling short changed with an incomplete, less than “true” finish. However, neither of those runnings featured the emptiness the ultimate fan heartbreak version contained.

The 1992 Daytona 500 promised to be one of the best in recent memory. Story lines flew in from everywhere. Bill Elliott, synonymous with Daytona success in the 80’s, was driving for the legendary Junior Johnson, his first foray out of the family shop in Dawsonville, Georgia. Second generation driver Davey Allison ended the previous season as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit and was poised to have the Allison name back at the top of the sport. Darrell Waltrip was returning to Daytona, site of two horrific accidents in the last year and a half. Then you had Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs making his debut in NASCAR with another second generation driver carrying a legendary name, Dale Jarrett. Dale Earnhardt, fresh off three straight narrow losses was STILL trying to win the Daytona 500, and there was the small matter of this being the final Daytona 500 start in the storied career of “The King” Richard Petty, he the winner of seven Daytona 500’s.

Unfortunately, all but one of these story lines was deemed irrelevant before halfway.

On lap 92, Elliott, having established himself as perhaps the strongest car in the field, was battling teammate and pole sitter Sterling Marlin for the lead in turns one and two when defending race champion Ernie Irvan dove beneath the two of them exiting turn two. The ill fated move only needed seconds to turn into a disaster. The three tangled and before the smoke cleared, just about anybody and everybody wound up with a wrecked racecar. Elliott, Irvan, Marlin, Waltrip, Jarrett, Petty, and Earnhardt were all among those involved. Additionally notable names like Rusty Wallace, Ken Schrader and Mark Martin also found their days ruined. Only a small handful of cars that had proven to be of any consequence survived the incident unscathed, and only two of them (Michael Waltrip and Morgan Sheppard) had any hope of being able to match up with the strongest survivor, Davey Allison.

Sheppard and Waltrip (who saw his chance at victory evaporate due to late engine failure) combined to lead 10 of the final 109 laps. Allison easily led the other 99 and had no trouble keeping Sheppard at bay down the stretch and across the line.

What promised to be one of the best Daytona 500’s, perhaps ever, quickly became a snooze fest with all the on track competition of a Formula 1 race for the final 250 miles.

Darrell Waltrip 1984

Much was made of it taking Waltrip 17 years to win the Daytona 500, and while the number of failed attempts for one of the ten greatest drivers ever was frustrating, the manner in which he lost pales in comparison to the nature of losses suffered by a couple of other multi-time series champions.

However, in 1984 Waltrip held the lead on the final lap, unfortunately the man who’d been trailing him for 38 laps was doing so according to plan. And that man was the guy who’d been fastest all week. Cale Yarborough executed the sling shot perfectly and before it was over Waltrip was relegated to third. Of all of his failed attempts to win, this was easily the closest he’d been to victory, more so than the bizarre 1979 runner-up performance.

David Pearson, 1975

With ten laps left, Pearson held a seemingly insurmountable lead of 5.2 seconds over Benny Parsons. When it was over Pearson found himself two laps down in fourth place.

With drafting assistance from Richard Petty, eight laps in arrears himself and eager to assist in the defeat of his arch rival, Parsons began cutting into the lead, and had it down to two seconds with three laps left.

Pearson, now under far more pressure than he expected was trying to navigate lap traffic, and doing so with much more urgency. The urgency resulted in Pearson tangling with Cale Yarborough sending the Wood Brothers owned Mercury sliding into the grass and Parsons into victory lane.

What would’ve happened had Petty pulled Parsons all the way to Pearson? We’ll never know. What we do know is Pearson never got the chance to fend off Parsons charge, only made possible itself thanks to a driver multiple laps behind.

Ken Schrader, 1989

All he did was win the pole, dominate the Busch Clash en route to victory, do the same thing in the Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday, and then lead 114 of the first 189 laps in the Daytona 500. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough. The aforementioned Waltrip, in his 17th try to win the 500, managed to stretch his fuel considerably longer than anyone else and “stole” the Daytona 500 from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Buddy Baker, 1973

Richard Petty may have won the race, but there was no doubt who had the best car.

Despite a faster late race pit stop that appeared to have won the race for Petty, Baker showed the superiority in his Dodge while chasing Petty down at a rate that ensured he’d get to Petty’s back bumper before the end of the race.

Unfortunately his engine expired six laps from the finish, and despite leading a whopping 157 laps, Baker finished sixth.

Bobby Allison, 1981

Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, as Petty found out in 1973 and 1974. And sometimes its better to be smart than fast.

Bobby Allison led for 117 laps from the pole, this after also winning his qualifier on Thursday. But when he made his final pit stop on lap 173 he took on right side tires, requiring a 17.4 second pit stop.

When Petty made his stop two laps later crew chief Dale Inman decided to forego fresh tires, opting only for gas only, resulting in a stop that was seven seconds quicker than his rival’s, creating a lead that Allison could never overcome.

Sterling Marlin, 2002

Short is the list of drivers who won the Daytona 500 more than twice, but if not for one of the most memorable boneheaded moves in sports history, it might be one longer.

While attempting to get underneath race leader Jeff Gordon on a late restart, Marlin came into contact with the four time champion, resulting in Gordon sliding thru the grass sideways and Marlin edging Ward Burton back to the line to get the caution, and presumably (pre GWC days) the win.

But instead of finishing under yellow, NASCAR opted to red flag the field to ensure a race to the checkered flag (a few losers of previous 500s wonder where this was in 1991 and 1997) under green flag conditions. Under the red flag, during which no work may be done on the racecar, Marlin became worried about the right front fender rubbing, and potentially cutting, the right front tire as a result of the contact with Gordon.

Marlin hopped out of his car on the back stretch and to the dismay of everyone, began tugging on the fender. Per NASCAR rules, Marlin was ordered to the rear of the field for the day’s final restart, ending his quest for a third Daytona 500 victory.

Would Marlin have pitted and lost track position regardless? Would the tire have held up for five miles? We don’t know the answer to either question.

And truthfully, most of us don’t even know that Ward Burton won the Daytona 500 that day, but we all know Sterling Marlin didn’t.

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Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 26-30

2000 Daytona 500

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Dale Jarrett captures his third Daytona 500. Only Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough have more

Rules had been changed prior to the 2000 season for NASCAR’s restrictor plate races, and the result was one of the most boring Daytona 500’s in the sports history. For a race that in years since has seen as many as 74 lead changes, a pass for the lead under green flag conditions simply was not going to happen on this particular Sunday. In fact, for the duration of Speed Weeks, the only passes made for the lead were made immediately after a restart.

None of this of course diminishes what Dale Jarrett and his Robert Yates team accomplished. The defending Winston Cup Champion and two time Daytona 500 winner had been the class of the field all week, so it was probably appropriate that he still won the Daytona 500. The only race that Jarrett did not win that week his Gatorade 125 mile qualifier, as he finished 2nd to Bill Elliott, who took the lead on the opening lap and never relinquished it. Jarrett though had already won the pole for the Daytona 500, and won the Bud Shootout as well.

The race was perhaps best known for the frustration and anger expressed afterwards by Mark Martin. With 14 laps to go, Martin was running second to surprise leader Johnny Benson when he made his move to the outside of Benson’s pontiac in turns one and two. Martin was under the impression that Jarrett, along with fellow Ford drivers Jeff Burton and Elliott, would go with him. Martin was wrong.

Jarrett bailed on Martin, and Burton and Elliott had no choice but to follow Jarrett through on the inside, moving Jarrett to the runner up spot in a position to challenge Benson himself. On a restart with just a handful of laps to go, Jarrett would get underneath Benson coming off of turn two and the Ford contingency, including Martin would follow.

The race only had nine lead changes, and just four over the duration of the final 165 laps in an event that would lead Dale Earnhardt to tell reporters that, “Bill France Sr. probably rolled over in his grave if he saw that”. Ironically, it would be this race that would prompt NASCAR to look into a new rules package for future plate events, and it would be those changes in the rules packages that helped contribute to the events of the 2001 Daytona 500.

29. 1992 Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Only two of these cars would remain intact for the finish, robbing us of what could have been a thrilling Daytona 500

Personally, this probably ranks as my least favorite Daytona 500, ever. I wasn’t but 7 years old at the time, but I think this particular race was the first time I ever wished death upon another human being, or said so aloud anyway.

This year marked the first year that my parents hosted a Daytona 500 party as well, and I remember many of my parents friends and some of their children at the house. I remember being very excited for this particular Daytona 500 as well. My favorite driver, Bill Elliott, had qualified on the outside poll and had won his Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier on Thursday in his first time out driving for Junior Johnson. It was the first time in his career that Elliott had driven for a team other than the family outfit in Dawsonville, and it was off to a smashing success. Throw in the fact that the last time the circuit had come to Daytona in July of 1991 Elliott had been victorious, and I was feeling awfully good about his chances on this Sunday.

This race also marked the final Daytona 500 for Richard Petty, the undisputed “King” of the sport. By the halfway point of the race, both feel good stories were over.

Elliott and teammate Sterling Marlin (the pole sitter) dominated the early portion of the race, leading a combined 56 of the first 91 laps, with Davey Allison leading 28 thanks to a two tire pit stop. In other words, the Junior Johnson cars were the class of the field, and the world knew it.

But on lap 92 everything changed. First Marlin made a move on Elliott, then Irvan made a move on Marlin at the exit of turn two putting the three three abreast across the track. Calamity ensued. Just about anyone who had any chance of winning this race, and certainly anyone who I cared about winning, was involved. Pick a name, Martin, Earnhardt, Petty, Jarrett, Waltrip, Wallace, any of them, they were involved. The only three cars of consequence not involved were Allison, Morgan Shepherd, and Michael Waltrip. Every other contender was eliminated.

I remember crawling up on to my mom’s lap in absolute tears, yelling, “I wanna kill him, I wanna kill him”. The “him” I was referring to was Ernie Irvan. Two years ago at Darlington, while multiple laps in arrears, Irvan had caused a massive crash that effectively ended the career of Neil Bonnet. A year later, Irvan once again caused a massive crash, this time at Talladega, resulting in Kyle Petty suffering a broken leg. Needless to say, Irvan’s nickname of “Swervin Irvan” was well deserved. Unfortunately, this would not be the final time his wreckless and aggressive driving style would cause a problem.

In any event, the accident left Davey Allison with virtually no competition. He easily led all but 10 of the remaining 109 laps on his way to a Daytona 500 victory. In a season where Elliott lost the championship by a mere 10 points, I think one can see why I’m still very bitter about this race.

28. 2009 Daytona 500

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it's almost like nobody knows he even has one

Matt Kenseth won the first of two career Daytona 500s in 2009, and it’s almost like nobody knows he even has one

The previously mentioned two Daytona 500s may not have been a very good show to watch, but for their own reasons, they were at least memorable, even if not for something positive. The same cannot be said of the 2009 Daytona 500.

For starters, this was the third Daytona 500 I’d been to in person, and it was the third time I’d been treated to poor weather. So things were already off to a bad start.

Secondly, Kyle Busch led 88 of the races first 120 laps, and if you know anything about my fandom in NASCAR, you know I harbor an extreme dislike of the Busch boys.

Third, the race itself ultimately wound up being affected by the weather. Rain cut it short after just under 400 miles.

Fourth, the winner, well, he’s about as interesting as a manilla folder. It’s not that I have anything against Matt Kenseth, but he’s not exactly the big name you’re looking to see win if your guy can’t.

As mentioned, Kyle Busch led 88 of the first 120 laps, so I suppose it could have been worse. I could have been forced to watch him win the thing, as it certainly appeared that was going to be the case. However, after a caution on lap 120, Busch found himself out of the lead after pit-stops. And soon after, he found himself out of the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had already been having a bad day, the issues ranged from picking the wrong lines in traffic, to errors on pit road, to driver mistakes getting on and off pit-road. Apparently the frustrations affected his driving, and on the restart Earnhardt triggered a massive wreck on the backstretch that took out Busch, ending his day early.

Eventually on the restart, Matt Kenseth would work his way around Elliott Sadler, and when the rain fell following a caution for Eric Almirola with Kenseth leading, his place in Daytona history was secure.

27. 2004 Daytona 500

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior's in 2004

Few Daytona 500 wins were as popular as Junior’s in 2004

Did I mention I was three for three when it came to bad weather at the Daytona 500? Fortunately, the race itself wasn’t impacted by weather in 2004, and in fact, once the show got going, the day turned out to be quite nice. But it didn’t start that way. I distinctly remember having to use my shirt as a koozie so my hands wouldn’t freeze while holding my beer can before the race got going.

Once underway though, the race was anything but exciting. A big crash on the backstretch where Michael Waltrip first unveiled his new roof hatch exit was about it for the excitement of the day.

Tony Stewart used the 2004 Daytona 500 to put into full-gear his apparent quest to join Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip as multi-time NASCAR champions who could win any and everything at Daytona, but for years, be unable to claim a Daytona 500 trophy for themselves.

Dale Earnhardt Jr led the first 29 laps, and the last 20. In between though, Stewart led 98 of 151 laps, and during that stretch, the nine laps led by Jimmie Johnson from laps 44-52 were the most consecutive laps led by anyone not in an orange chevrolet.

The race itself saw the final caution flag fly on lap 72 with the previously mentioned massive pile-up on the back stretch being the final wreck of the day. That, coupled with a rules package that much major emphasis on tire wear, resulted in the field becoming exceptionally spread out.

In fact, for the first time in about ten years, there was no lead “pack” fighting it out for the win. It was just Earnhardt and Stewart. Earnhardt had followed Stewart for much of the mid to late portion of the race, but with twenty to go, and with Stewart’s tires fading, Earnhardt seized the lead and never let it go. In fact, Stewart hardly even was able to put up much of a fight, doing all he could just to keep Earnhardt’s Budweiser chevrolet within reach.

For Earnhardt, winning the Daytona 500 obviously carried special meaning, and perhaps due to that and the popularity of his  victory, this could be ranked a little higher. But those things don’t make up for the fact that the race itself really stunk.

26. 1995 Daytona 500

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Sterling Marlin became just the third man to ever win back to back Daytona 500s, joining Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty.

Not since the Elliotts in the 80s had anyone been as dominant at Talladega and Daytona as Sterling Marlin and his Kodak Chevrolet were during the mid 90s. If there was a restrictor plate race to be run, you could bet your bottom dollar that Marlin and his bunch were going to be among the favorites. The Runt Pittman built engines in Marlin’s cars even sounded different, in addition to clearly just being better than anything else on the track.

The year before, Marlin had won his first career race, in the 1994 Daytona 500, marking the 2nd time (Ernie Irvan, 1991) in four years that the Morgan-McClure Racing team had won the Daytona 500. Marlin didn’t visit victory lane again that season, and finished only 14th in the final points standings. He did however finish in the top ten of both Talladega races and also led six laps in the July race at Daytona.

In 1995 however Marlin and the team would take steps to becoming a more complete team, and a true championship contender. And it started with the Daytona 500.

Marlin’s victory in the 1995 Daytona 500 was the most thorough victory by anyone in the Daytona 500 since Bill Elliott’s wins in 1985 and 1987. A late caution and mini-charge after getting on four fresh tires by Dale Earnhardt were the only things keeping things interesting, and even then, you had to force yourself to believe Earnhardt had any real shot at getting by Marlin.

I remember running across Bill Elliott at an autograph signing a few days after the race, and I asked Elliott if he hadn’t had a flat tire that cost him a lap if he’d had anything for Earnhardt and Marlin. His reply, “We coulda beat Earnhardt, but I don’t know about Marlin”. In other words, the four car was in a whole ‘nother zip code.

Marlin though wasn’t entirely alone in that zip code however. A flat tire didn’t only claim Bill Elliott, it also eliminated the only car that looked like it could run with Marlin; Jeff Gordon. Gordon suffered a flat tire, and on the pit stop to change tires also had the car slightly roll off the jack curling back the left front fender behind the wheel. Those two things combined were enough to eliminate Gordon from contention as he, like Elliott, was never able to make up the lap he’d lost while dealing with his tire issues. Gordon was however, the only guy not named Marlin to lead more than 23 laps. In fact, Gordon led 61 of the races first 98 laps.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t Gordon chasing Marlin at the finish, and we were denied a battle between the two best cars on the track, as with Gordon and Marlin leading a combined 166 of 200 laps, we were also denied a show worthy of watching at all.

There were only two green flag passes made for the lead all race long, both of them coming when Dale Earnhardt was passed by Sterling Marlin. Marlin passed him on lap three, and then passed him for good on lap 181. In between, every lead change came during a caution period. Thrilling right?

Earnhardt’s continued quest to finally snare a Daytona 500 was at this point, reason alone to watch any Daytona 500, and the fact that he made something resembling a charge at Marlin late in the going is pretty much all that keeps this from ranking as perhaps the worst Daytona 500 of the last thirty years.

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NASCAR Screws It Up Again

Nobody really wants to see a driver wreck a competitor on the final lap coming to the finish line to win a race, and nobody really wants to see cars flying up into grandstands from said last lap accidents. Well, apparently nobody but NASCAR.

At least that is the message conveyed with their incredulous ruling Saturday night at the Budweiser Shootout.

Denny Hamlin made a late, daring, and pretty doggone good move heading to the tri-oval to take the checkered flag Saturday night. Unfortunately, it was too good of a move. Not only did he manage to get underneath race leader Ryan Newman, he managed to do so without turning Newman sideways. If you recall, Brad Keselowski was not able to execute a similar pass at Talladega a couple of years ago.

 

You tell me where there is room underneath Ryan Newman (39) without being underneath the yellow line.

The only reason Hamlin did not turn Newman sideways is because Ryan Newman crowded Hamlin, moving down the race track, eventually eliminating all the “in bounds” asphalt from Hamlin’s disposal. Newman’s actions forced Hamlin to drop beneath the yellow line in the tri-oval as he pulled ahead of and up in front of Newman while barely beating Kurt Busch to the finish line.

Or, well, I guess “forced” isn’t the proper word here. At least that’s apparently how NASCAR unbelievably saw it. I suppose Hamlin could have held his line, kept his car “in bounds”, and when Newman made his move to crowd Hamlin down the track, simply let Ryan Newman wreck himself, and likely several other cars.

So, Newman gave Hamlin two choices. Wreck Newman, or go below the yellow line, avoid an accident, and ultimately see a victory turn into a 12th place finish thanks to the forthcoming penalty from NASCAR.

That there can be such a choice is appalling.

Supposedly, as a part of the yellow line rule, there is also a rule stipulating that while you are not allowed to go below the yellow line and advance your position, you are also not to force someone else down there.

Well, I don’t know about you, but when one car is beside another, as Hamlin was with Newman, and when said car got underneath the driver in bounds at the outset, to then see Newman’s left side tires hugging the yellow line, all the way on the bottom of the track, it seems pretty cut and dry what took place. Where was Hamlin supposed to go at this point? He physically could NOT move up the track back in bounds, Ryan Newman occupied the very bottom line, despite the fact that Hamlin had the right to that part of the racetrack thanks to his move off turn four to get under Newman.

Now, this is not to bash Ryan Newman, or call him a dirty driver, or anything of the sort. However, it is to say that if a rule was broken here, it was by Newman.

Then again, I guess this comes back to “forced” not being the appropriate term. I suppose it’s the loophole NASCAR has in the rule to where they never actually have to penalize a driver for “forcing” someone below the yellow line, as they can always say, “well, he could have simply held his ground”. Technically, yes, Hamlin could have held his ground.

And we’d have wrecked racecars. I guess that’s what NASCAR wants.

I for one find the yellow line rule pointless and silly. However, I also understand why it’s in place. The problem is the enforcement of it is absolutely pathetic. In the very least, if it’s the white lap, I think the rule should be done away with entirely.

How many Daytona 500 wins would Jeff Gordon have with such a rule? Gordon’s daring 1999 three wide move on Rusty Wallace and Mike Skinner couldn’t happen under these rules, and that’s a shame too. It’s regarded as one of the finest Daytona 500s of all-time, and Gordon’s daring pass is considered one of the greatest moves the sport has ever seen.

Donnie and Cale in 1979? Couldn’t have happened, because they wouldn’t have ever gotten close to the grass.

This exciting race for the lead in the 1999 Daytona 500 would never have happened with todays rules.

Come next Sunday in the Daytona 500, what’s a driver going to do off of turn four? Are they going to be willing to risk being run down below the yellow line, and thus potentially losing 20 positions and all the points that go with it thanks to a penalty? Or will they just wreck whichever driver it is trying to crowd them out of room? Or will they just sit in line and take their 2nd place finish?

That one has to even question this is inexcusable, and falls completely at the all too often inept feet of NASCAR.

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