Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: In Today’s NASCAR, Does the Daytona 500 Still Matter?

The 65th running of the Daytona 500 will take place this Sunday, Feb. 19. The 200-lap race has been won by legends such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Derrike Cope and Jamie McMurray. A race that has defined and defied careers alike.

With the evolution of the modern NASCAR Cup Series playoff format, if a driver wins, they’re likely in the playoffs. As such, a Daytona 500 victory matters the same as a victory at any other racetrack in the regular season.

With the evolution of NASCAR, Mark Kristl and Frank Velat debate our season opener of 2-Headed Monster, does the Daytona 500 still matter?

It’s Not What it Used to Be

The Daytona 500 is still the Super Bowl of stock car racing. But it’s much more difficult for football players to win the Super Bowl than it is for NASCAR drivers to win the Daytona 500. Lately, winning this race doesn’t seem to carry the same feeling of grand accomplishment as it once did.

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Jimmie Johnson & Travis Pastrana Bond Over Daytona 500 Berth

First, this is due almost exclusively to how the race itself is contested, which has become a demolition derby of sorts. The handful of cars with (most of) their fenders intact that remain drivable, beat on, bang on, and block each other during the inevitable green white checkered finish. That makes for a rather lousy end to The Great American Race.

Big crashes are nothing new at Daytona. But what has changed is the frequency and breadth of these field-decimating accidents.

Gone are the days when a driver had to miss the Big One. Now they have to miss all of them. From 1990 through 2010, only two Daytona 500s had more than one accident that involved more than five cars. Since 2011, all but one of them have had multiple such crashes. That one was the 2016 edition which, interestingly enough, produced arguably the best finish of those 12 most recent races.

Drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt chased the Daytona 500 for decades before finally winning it. Their ability kept themselves in contention year after year and there’s no doubt the eventual breakthrough required some luck. But had they been in 20th place with two laps to go, they would have had no shot.

Back then, a driver couldn’t just hope for a massive crash to part a sea of sheet metal. But the current cars are designed to keep the field bunched tightly together. One wrong move and suddenly the guy in 27th one lap, is now running fifth on the next lap.

Survival of the luckiest is no way to determine the sport’s greatest single-day prize. Yet, here we are, watching the “greatest stock car drivers in the world” run each other over to win. The mentality of wanting victory no matter the cost has completely sucked all of the prestige from the sport’s showcase event. The winner is paraded across the country doing interviews and if asked about their previous accomplishments, the answer is basically “Nope, just this one”.

However, it is true that surprise winners aren’t a recent phenomenon. Daytona 500 history features stunning triumphs by the likes of Tiny Lund, Derrike Cope, Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip. But those drivers scored their wins in an era where you still had to beat the best rather than simply avoid the crashes that wiped out the best.

I’ll even throw Trevor Bayne into that category. Sure, there were a couple big wrecks in the 2011 race. But this was in the era of tandem drafting and Bayne developed a strategy. He pushed Jeff Gordon throughout the race, took the lead late and then had to hold off the competition for six laps. Much more of an achievement than Austin Dillon putting Aric Almirola into the wall barely a mile from the finish line.

Perhaps the past two years have tainted my view a bit. Both the 2021 and 2022 versions of the race have featured a first-time race winner who has not returned to victory lane since. But shouldn’t a champion of the sport’s most significant race be able to win some of the less significant races as well? I would certainly expect such and I think it’s fair for race fans to as well. -Frank Velat.

It’s Still the “Great American Race

“It’s the Great American Race, and it’s only on FOX,” NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip said.

Of the 38 events on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, only one has that moniker: the Daytona 500.

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It’s the Super Bowl of racing. It’s known worldwide right alongside the Indianapolis 500 as the two marquee events in American motorsports.

DW and Dale Earnhardt are NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers. Among their accolades are their championships, their wins and both drivers were known for their personalities. For both legends, one of the stories that immediately comes to mind is their quest to win the Daytona 500. Both drivers finally won the Harley J. Earl trophy.

Yes, the playoff format has lessened the value of NASCAR’s crown jewels. Almost four years ago, I argued that there were three crown jewel races and those still mattered. Unfortunately, two of those three no longer are as prestigious. The Southern 500 no longer is the throwback race and has become a playoff race. The Coca-Cola 600 is revered by motorsports fans, but is no longer recognizable to casual sports fans who may embrace the Indianapolis 500 on a three-day weekend, not another four-and-a-half hours into the evening.

The Daytona 500 though? That’s sacred. The track has the Daytona 500 race-winning car in its museum. Yes, the Daytona 500 matters.

Of the teams entered in the 2023 edition, 36 are chartered entries that will compete in all events. Meanwhile, the open teams are not required to compete in every race. Those open teams do not receive as much money as the chartered teams.

Because NASCAR no longer releases the purse money for each event, it is unknown how much money the Daytona 500 field will win. Even if the Daytona 500 pays the most, the allure of competing and dreaming of winning in the race draws many open teams.

In 2023, six open teams are vying for four spots. Two will fail to make the season opener. Yet all six are sponsored entries. Why? Because companies are willing to sponsor a driver who is competing in the Daytona 500.

It’s the mystique of the event which draws people – diehard, casual and one-time viewers – to watch the Daytona 500.

The 2.5-mile superspeedway is known for its massive multi-car crashes, referred to as The Big One, in addition to its historical unpredictability. Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell and Austin Cindric all have one Cup victory on their resumes. All three won the Daytona 500, a highlight that will accompany their name for the rest of their lives.

Given the nature of superspeedway racing today, even if a driver’s racecar isn’t handling the best, as long as that driver is running on the lead lap, they still have a shot at victory. The draft equalizes the field so top dog Hendrick Motorsports and newcomer Kaulig Racing all have the same opportunity to capture the win.

Statistically, a Daytona 500 victory counts the exact same towards a driver’s championship drive as a victory at any other racetrack. But the sheer significance and grandeur of it exceeds any other win. When I crafted my list for the Frontstretch 75 greatest NASCAR drivers, I primarily examined three stats for the Cup field: championships, wins and Daytona 500 victories.

The Daytona 500 matters, to journalists and drivers alike.

Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and Tony Stewart all had Hall of Fame caliber careers. Yet all of them failed to win the Daytona 500. For Labonte, he ran that race for the final four straight years of his career, all part-time campaigns. Why? Because he craved a Daytona 500 victory.

When Joey Logano won his second Cup championship at Phoenix Raceway in 2022, 3.213 million people were watching. For the season opener, almost nine months earlier, 8.87 million people saw rookie Cindric win his first Daytona 500 — over two and a half times more. Yes, of course the Daytona 500 still matters. – Mark Kristl

About the author

Frank Velat has been an avid follower of NASCAR and other motorsports for over 20 years. He brings a blend of passionate fan and objective author to his work. Frank offers unique perspectives that everyone can relate to, remembering the sport's past all the while embracing its future. Follow along with @FrankVelat on Twitter.

Mark Kristl joined Frontstretch at the beginning of the 2019 NASCAR season. He is the site's ARCA Menards Series editor. Kristl is also an Eagle Scout and a proud University of Dayton alum.

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Bill B

I agree with the first point of view. The RP races have become more of a lottery than anything else. There was always an element of luck but it’s become increasingly more so.

The current “win and you’re in the playoffs” has a lot to do with that. It makes it worth taking chances and being an ass on the track. How ridiculous is it that someone is locked in the playoffs after the first event? Of course this is a factor at every track, but it is especially problematic at the RP tracks because of the speeds and the fact that the cars are bunched up.

The GWC finishes raise the probability of more carnage (raising the crapshoot factor) because in a two lap shoot out everyone is willing to take more chances. There are often only a handful of cars left making it even more enticing to drive like an idiot.

The continued downward spiral of sportsmanship in sports and in the larger society. Win at any cost is the mantra now. Cheat, steal, lie, play dirty, whatever it takes. Winning is all that matters.

Dan

Remember the famous quote from Vince Lombardi? “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” If you remember you’re giving away your age.
😁

Bill B

I remember… LOL.

There was also another old saying….
“It not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

WJW Motorsports

Well said Bill, and really sad.

DoninAjax

Derrike Cope a legend?

Gone are the days where 60 or more cars tried to qualify for the 500 and NA$CAR chasing the most $$$$$ they can get is to blame with the guaranteed starters. I’d bet that NA$CAR is paying for the extra two cars just so every car entered doesn’t qualify automatically. I’ll also bet that there are 38 or fewer cars for their next “event”.

janice

I was talking on Wednesday night his 60 cars would head to Daytona to try to make the race. So much has changed in nascar since then.

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