Tag Archives: Matt Kenseth

Ranking The Daytona 500s Of My Lifetime

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There’s really nothing like the Daytona 500.

So as we embark on the 60th 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. 2018 will mark the 34th Daytona 500 of my lifetime, so how would I rank the three plus decades worth of Daytona 500s I have been alive for? 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.

33) 2017 Daytona 500 Kurt Busch- Well, it finally happened, a Daytona 500 that hurts my heart more than the 1992 race. And more than the 1997 race. And you know what, maybe more than both combined, thanks to the horrific timing of it. If you recall, just a few weeks earlier there was this little event called the Super Bowl, and in it my childhood team seemingly had a championship locked up and victory sealed. We know what happened next. Fast forward a few weeks to the Daytona 500 and the second generation star in the making, Chase Elliott, was in control of the Daytona 500 over the race’s final 50 miles. The son of my favorite driver Bill Elliott (who if you keep reading you will see mentioned multiple times, including in the next race on this list counting down from my least enjoyable Daytona 500 to my favorite) was in position to score his first career win, and do it 30 years after his father last won the sport’s biggest race. The stage was set. And then? I still don’t want want to talk about it. Watch for yourself.

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 certainly could only help get a few more eyeballs and create a little bit more bar talk.

*after Martinsville in the fall of 2017, I have to strongly reconsider where I place this on the pecking order, considering who won this race*

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 the support of 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. “Gutsiest move I ever saw man”, would be a very fitting way to describe the move Jeff Gordon made to take the lead in the waning laps. But his work wasn’t done, he still had to hold of Earnhardt the rest of the way, and the kid showed who really was the the king of the mountain. While the on track show overall was perhaps better in 2005, this transcending moment along with the move Jeff Gordon made 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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Dirtiest Moves in NASCAR

In light of Denny Hamlin pulling one of the dirtiest moves I can recall in my 30 years of watching NASCAR and hearing some people say, “that’s just racin'” I decided to compile a list of moves that compare similarly to what Denny pulled on Sunday night.

Wrecking the leader is not “racing”. Not when it’s intentional without any intent to actually try to race. Moving the leader? Wrecking him accidentally by driving too hard in an attempt to win? Those are acceptable. Frustrating for the driver and fans of the driver on the short end of that stick, but acceptable.

Flat out driving through someone, or hooking them after they go by you? That’s not racing. That’s, as Harry Hogge once called it, “low-down, shit-ass racin'”.

A mistake made while going for the win, which I still believe is what happened with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr at Richmond, doesn’t put you on this list. Granted, I’m the only judge here and you’re welcome to disagree, but intent is a major factor here. If it looked like the driver had at least some intent, or even hope, of trying to make the pass without there being an accident, it doesn’t qualify. But if it looks like you made up your mind that the guy in front of you was going to wind up sideways off your bumper, then that’s not racing to me, and that qualifies your move as dirty. Cutting off a driver or coming down on a guy who has already stuck his nose under you, even if he probably shouldn’t have, also doesn’t count.

Some have tried to argue such tactics are common place, but going through race after race for roughly the past 1,000 races or so, finding a time where the leader was deliberately taken out in the final 25 miles or so of an event is difficult. It doesn’t happen often. At all. So I decided to point the times that I can recall it occurring over the past 30 years or so at the Cup level, listed in order of egregiousness.

In many of these you will see some blocking, and some contact perhaps even initiated by the ultimate victim. But as mentioned earlier, there’s a big difference in beating and banging, and bumping and trading paint than in just wrecking someone. Moving someone out of the way and taking a win away while costing them a few spots at most is one thing. Taking a guy from a potential win to a 25th place finish because you ruined his entire race is something entirely different. And that’s the key here, did the guy who previously possessed the lead still finish near the top of the leaderboard? If so, that moment doesn’t make this list. It’s the ones who had their entire race ruined by a dirty move that make it here.

So here we go, the dirtiest, most blatant occurrences of someone deliberately taking the leader out, usually in an effort to win for one’s self, though notably at the top of the list is an act of vengeance.

1- 2015 Matt Kenseth wrecks Joey Logano at Martinsville

2- 1986 Dale Earnhardt wrecks Darrell Waltrip at Richmond

3- 1989 Rusty Wallace wrecks Darrell Waltrip in The Winston

4- 1998 Rusty Wallace wrecks Jeff Gordon at Richmond

5- 2017 Denny Hamlin wrecks Chase Elliott at Martinsville

6- 1999 Dale Earnhardt wrecks Terry Labonte at Bristol

7- 2015 Joey Logano wrecks Matt Kenseth at Kansas

8- 2005 Brian Vickers wrecks Mike Bliss to win Nextel Open

9- 2006 Jeff Gordon wrecks Matt Kenseth at Chicago

 

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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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Ranking the Daytona 500s of the Last Thirty 30 Years; 21-25

25. 2003 Daytona 500

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

About the only thing anyone remembers from 2003 besides the rain.

The 2003 Daytona 500 may go down as one of the strangest Daytona 500s ever. This was during the period of DEI dominance at the restrictor plates, and the 2003 Daytona 500 was no exception. Just the previous Thursday, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Michael Waltrip had started, and finished, first and second in their Gatorade 125 Mile Qualifier. And on an overcast Sunday at the beach, it appeared a similar story was being written.

Earnhardt however would suffer from electrical problems and would fall multiple laps in arrears, effectively taking him out of contention for his first Daytona 500 victory. Waltrip however was still around, and it appeared his stiffest competition would be from either Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson. While Earnhardt may have no longer been in contention for the victory himself, he still was in position to play a huge role in deciding just who would go to victory lane.

A caution flew on lap 96, and following the pit stops by the leaders, Jimmie Johnson emerged as the leader for the first time. Waltrip (64) and Earnhardt (22) had led 86 of the first 95 laps of the event and it would appear to only be a matter of time before Waltrip would make his way back to the front. Earnhardt was at this point still battling to make up the multiple laps he’d lost while suffering through his ailments earlier in the day. Time, however, was not on anyone’s side this day. Well, perhaps it was on one man’s side.

The race restarted and only three green flag laps were run, as another caution flew, this one for debris. Johnson still maintained the lead, but lining up to his inside on the restart would be the car of Dale Earnhardt Jr, who was two laps down. This was before the days of the double file restart with only lead-lap cars, and wave arounds, and lucky dogs. This was when the lead lap cars restarted on the outside, and the cars one or more laps in arrears restarted on the bottom. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. It made all the difference in the world on this day.

Immediately after the green dropped on lap 106 Waltrip dropped from his spot on Johnson’s bumper to the bottom line behind teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt raced past Johnson to bring himself back to just one lap down, but more importantly, he pulled Waltrip with him. Everyone knew that the two DEI cars hooked up together were next to unbeatable. So the circumstances surrounding what turned out to be the final restart did not at all make Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus very happy.

While the leaders were coming off of turn four, defending Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton crashed, bringing out the race’s third caution in the last twelve laps. It would be the final caution. The skies completely opened up while the field was pacing around the track, and it did not take long for NASCAR to call the race after just 109 laps, or 272.5 miles.

The irony in it all was that once again, Waltrip was denied a true victory lane celebration of a Daytona 500 victory. Amazing, for a man who won two Daytona 500s (though many hesitate to say that, considering this one wasn’t even the distance of the Nationwide race that precedes it on Saturday), he’s yet to truly experience victory lane in The Great American Race.

Kurt Busch would wind up second, and it would not be the last time he would be the bridesmaid, while Johnson took third. Earnhardt would never get the chance to make up his other lost lap, but of course, if you’ve been reading you know, he would take the checkered flag the very next February.

The race itself saw just 11 lead changes during its 109 laps, and only Waltrips pass of Johnson on the restart took place under green. Coupled with the weather, and the shortened distance, there really wasn’t much to enjoy about this Daytona 500. Ryan Newman’s accident, and the subplots of Waltrip winning another Daytona 500 that seemed to be marred and overshadowed by a bigger story are the only things that made this race remotely memorable.

24. 1985 Daytona 500

A portrait of dominance

A portrait of dominance

When it comes down to it, there may not have been a less competitive Daytona 500 in the past 30 years than the 1985 edition. And it’s for that reason, actually, that it doesn’t rank as the least enjoyable of the past thirty years.

The 1985 Daytona 500 should in fact be appreciated for what it was. And what it was was a domination of unheard of proportions, and of proportions that will never be seen again at the famed 2.5 mile track. What Bill Elliott managed to do to the field at Daytona in the February of 1985 bordered on criminal.

Elliott had already won the pole with a track record lap that bettered 205 mph, and was over a full mph faster than outside pole sitter Cale Yarborough. On Thursday, Elliott went out and proceeded to absolutely crush what fleeting hope anyone had of catching the red Ford by leading all 50 laps of his Twin 125 Qualifier…..and lapping all but five cars. That’s right, in a 50 lap sprint at Daytona, Elliott left a mere five cars on the lead lap and won by 37 seconds. Yes, 37 seconds. If Elliott didn’t break, nobody had a chance on Sunday.

And as it would happen, Elliott did not break. But just about everybody else did in their attempts, futile at that, to try and keep up the pace. By days end, only 18 of the 40 starters were still running at the finish, and only Lake Speed finished on the same lap as Elliott. The list of names who succumbed to Elliott’s prowess was long and distinguished. Nobody had anything for the youngster from Georgia, and anyone who tried to keep the pace found themselves in the garage.

At one point in the race Elliott built up a 44 second lead. Again, you’re reading this right, a 44 second lead. Apparently NASCAR didn’t like the way Elliott was stinking up their show however and had him come to pit road to repair a hole over the headlight cover. Elliott made his stop, lost the lead as the crew made the repairs, rejoined the fray and he was back in the lead again in 10 laps.

The 1985 Daytona 500 was not particularly enjoyable to watch, and it certainly was not competitive as Elliott led for 136 laps. However, what it was, was something we won’t ever witness again. What it was was a case of man and machine completely dominating every other combination of man and machine to levels that were just unfathomable. People talk about how dominant the Morgan-McClure car was at the plate tracks for a stretch in the mid 90s, or the DEI dominance of the early 2000s, or even of Jimmie Johnson’s success at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. None of those compare to how dominant Bill Elliott was at Daytona during Speed Weeks in 1985. Never since has one man been such a heavy favorite entering a NASCAR race, and for good reason. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen.

23. 2012 Daytona 500

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

Perhaps the most surreal moment in Daytona 500 history

The most recent edition of the Daytona 500 is remembered much more for things that happened while the green flag was NOT out, than what took place at speed on the racetrack.

For starters, for the first time ever, the Daytona 500 was pushed to Monday. The race had been shortened in the past, and it had been delayed. But it had never been postponed. As they say, there’s a first time for everything. Not that FOX, or NASCAR really seemed to mind. With inclement weather still lingering around on Monday, NASCAR was able to get a prime time Monday night showcase slot for it’s premier event, which so happened to also be the debut of one, Danica Patrick.

The race itself, to long-time NASCAR fans, wasn’t exactly a lot to write home about. The two Jack Roush cars of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were clearly the class of the field, with seemingly the only driver with any possibility of besting the two blue ovals being Denny Hamlin. A first lap crash had already taken out Jimmie Johnson, as well as Danica Patrick. Hamlin seemed early on to be the class of the field, but anyone who’d seen the Roush cars all week long knew how stout they were. And in the second half of the race the two flexed their muscle.

The end was fairly anti-climatic. Kenseth led the final 38 laps, an unheard of number in today’s day and age of plate racing, and was never seriously challenged at the end. Dale Earnhardt Jr. managed to get around Kenseth’s teammate Greg Biffle for 2nd, but Earnhardt had no chance of passing Kenseth without any drafting help, and obviously, Biffle wasn’t going to be helping a Chevrolet beat his teammate.

However, it almost came to be that Kenseth never got to lead those last 38 laps. And had that stayed true, this Daytona 500 would have gone down as one of the most memorable ever.

NASCAR has a way of having big moments happen when the national television spotlight is brightest. In 1979 when they televised the race flag to flag live for the first time, there was the fight. In 2001, when FOX televised its first race, there was Dale Earnhardt’s death. And, then in 2012 when NASCAR got its first Monday Night race, there was Juan Pablo Montoya and the jet-dryer. Darrell Waltrip likes to say in the booth, “have you ever?” The answer in this case, from anyone who saw this, was, “No”.

Montoya’s escapade into the jet dryer left jet fuel spilling all over the race track in turn three, and the possibility of damage to the track’s surface made it very possible the race would not be restarted. Had that happened, Dave Blaney would be your defending Daytona 500 champion.

Of course, after a lengthy clean-up, and lots of Tide, and Brad Keselowski tweeting pictures from inside his car, the race did re-start. So, as it stands, the Montoya/jet-dryer explosion makes this race memorable. But had it allowed Dave Blaney to be a Daytona 500 winner, it would have been one of the most memorable of all-time.

22. 2006 Daytona 500

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

With his victory in 2006, Jimmie Johnson has avoided the question that dogged Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, and now haunts Tony Stewart; Will you ever win the big one?

It wasn’t that the 2006 Daytona 500 wasn’t competitive, there were 32 lead changes among 18 different drivers. It was just that it was…….well, what was it? And there in lies the problem. There is no identity to this edition of the Daytona 500, nothing memorable to stand out. Well, I guess you could count Tony Stewart body slamming Matt Kenseth into the grass down the backstretch, only days after Stewart himself claimed, “We’re going to kill somebody driving like this”. But aside from that?

Perhaps it’s more memorable for Ryan Newman, Dodge, and Chip Ganassi. It was on this night that they realized Casey Mears would opt to help someone from his home state win, and driving a rival team’s car, in a rival manufacturer, as opposed to helping a fellow Dodge. Newman made a move on race leader Jimmie Johnson on the back stretch of the final lap, expecting help from a fellow Dodge lined up behind him. Instead, the Dodge driver decided his allegiances to California were deeper than those to the manufacturer of his race cars, and he Mears stuck with Johnson, handing Johnson the win.

For Johnson it was particularly sweet, as early during Speed Weeks NASCAR had kindly, or maybe not so kindly, escorted Chad Knaus out of the race track, and told him he was not welcome back to the track for six weeks after they found some creative workings of his on the race car to be a little too blatant a smudging of the rules. Interesting enough, the man filling in on the top of the pit box for Knaus was none other than Darian Grubb, he off the 2012 Sprint Cup championship with Tony Stewart.

I feel like there should be more to say here, but, really, there just isn’t. The race was competitive, so it wasn’t boring, and there was drama at the conclusion. There was just something missing…….

21. 1986 Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

Quite possibly the finest looking race car to ever win a Daytona 500

The 1986 Daytona 500, despite NASCAR’s efforts to slow down the Fords, particularly one built in a tiny shop in Dawsonville, Ga, seemed very similar to its predecessor. Bill Elliott was on the pole, qualifying at over 205 mph….again.

But Elliott’s ’86 Ford wasn’t as dominant as his 1985 model had been. Partly due to NASCAR rules aimed to slow him down, and partly due to the diligence and work of the other teams in the garage, particularly the Chevrolets owned by Richard Childress and upstart owner Rick Hendrick, the elite competition seemed on an even playing field with Elliott.

Setting the stage was the budding rivalry that Richard Childress and his driver Dale Earnhardt had already established with Rick Hendrick and Geoff Bodine. On track skirmishes were frequent between the two, and even after this Daytona 500, would remain so. So much so, the feud between Rowdy Burns and Cole Trickle, and the meeting with NASCAR at the hospital was modeled after the rivalry between these two Chevy drivers.

For Sunday, Bodine had qualified on the outside pole along side Elliott and finished 2nd in his Twin 125 Mile Qualifer…..second to Earnhardt.

The race saw 19 lead changes in the first 113 laps, as the Fords, particularly Elliott, were not able to run away and hide. Elliott was in contention of course, but the race changed dramatically on the 117th lap. Neil Bonnett, who had led 32 laps earlier in the race, had suffered mechanical problems and found himself 18 laps off the pace. Yet, for some reason, he was still up at the front of the pack mixing it up with the leaders. This proved to be fatal to the hopes of many contenders. Bonnett broke a wheel on lap 117, and by the time he had collected all he was going to eliminate, he’d ended the hopes of Elliott, Cale Yarborough, Joe Ruttman, Buddy Baker and Tommy Ellis among others. At this point, it was pretty much down to Earnhardt and Bodine.

Bodine would dominate the second half of the race, but many, Bodine included, will tell you it was only because Earnhardt let him. Bodine would later say that as the race wound down, that Earnhardt’s Wrangler Monte Carlo was the faster of the two Chevrolets, even though Bodine led over half of the event. Bodine held the lead late, but Earnhardt was in the cat bird seat, exactly where he wanted, and needed to be, to win the Daytona 500. Ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Aided by pitting one lap after Earnhardt came to pit road, and by superior gas mileage, Bodine was able to stretch his fuel to the end, while Earnhardt could not. Earnhardt, likely from frustration and anger at losing the Daytona 500 in heartbreaking fashion (and it would not be the last) slid through his pit, and then when taking off from pit-road, tore something up in the motor, relegating him to a 14th place finish.

For Bodine and Hendrick, it was a sign that the used car salesman from Charlotte was serious about this stock car racing thing. It was the first big win for Hendrick, and as we all know, it would not be his last. For Bodine, this win would easily mark the highlight of his career. It also wouldn’t be the last time a Hendrick car won the Daytona 500 thanks to some impressive fuel mileage.

The budding rivalry between Bodine and Earnhardt had a few more coals added to the fire with this outcome. And for Earnhardt, little did he know how many more tries it would take to get a Daytona 500. It was already the second time he’d lost one in the closing laps, and as mentioned, it would not be the last.

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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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