Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Daytona to NASCAR Title? Not So Fast

It was the biggest day of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s career — the day he won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race.

No matter what else Stenhouse does in his career, no single race will define him as a driver as much as the Great American Race.

In the playoff era, the win also all but guarantees Stenhouse a playoff spot and a top-16 points finish. There’s an off chance that more than 16 drivers could win, and that would relegate a winner to the outside to look in. But it’s never happened to date, so Stenhouse should feel good about his chances.

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But does a win at Daytona guarantee success all year?

Nope.

Very few drivers have won the 500 and gone on to win a Cup title in the same year. The ones who have headline an exceptional group of drivers: Lee Petty, Richard Petty (four times), Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (twice). That’s it.

It’s impossible to look at the numbers and draw conclusions across the board, as the racing and the focus has undergone several drastic changes. There are, however, some definite trends that emerge within different blocks of time. A look at the performance of all Daytona 500 winners and their seasons is worth taking.

Pre-Modern Era: 1959 to 1971

Championships by Daytona 500 winners: Three (Lee Petty, 1959; Richard Petty, 1964, 1971)
Average points finish of Daytona 500 winners: 10.55

This is the most difficult era of NASCAR to really compare Daytona to the rest of the year, because the Pettys were the only winners of the race to run more than a partial schedule. With the schedule sometimes exceeding 50 events, it was uncommon for anyone to race every week. Daytona was a draw because it paid a lot of money and a lot of points, so many drivers made it part of their schedules. Some did well in the final standings by cherry-picking the races they did run, though the champion often ran all or most of the points-paying events.

Not included in the average points finish is Mario Andretti, who did not receive any points, most likely due to late entries or running in other series. Andretti won the 500 in 1967 as part of a six-race schedule worked into his open-wheel season.

Other winners in that stretch included Junior Johnson, Marvin Panch, Fireball Roberts, Tiny Lund, Fred Lorenzen, Yarborough, LeeRoy Yarbrough and Pete Hamilton. Johnson finished seventh in points in 1960, the best of any driver not named Petty in this era; Hamilton’s 21st-place finish in 1970 was the lowest among drivers who earned points.

Early Modern Era: 1972-87

Championships by Daytona 500 winners: Three (Richard Petty, 1974, 1979; Cale Yarborough, 1977) 
Average points finish of Daytona 500 winners: 7.73

Like Andretti in 1967, AJ Foyt was a Daytona 500 winner in 1972 but scored no points, again likely due to a late entry or competing in other series. After that, there’s a noticeable uptick in the average points finish. The shortened schedule meant that drivers had to race the whole season to have a chance at a title, creating a shift in approach. There were still drivers choosing to run the Daytona 500 as part of an abbreviated schedule; Benny Parsons (1975), David Pearson (1976), Buddy Baker (1980) and Yarborough (1983 and 1984) all won on part-time deals. Yarborough’s 1984 win was the last on an intentional partial season until 2010.

Superspeedway racing was not the close-quarters style of racing that it has become, so it’s not surprising that the Great American Race was dominated by the same drivers who ruled the roost throughout the year. The teams that could coax the most speed out of their cars everywhere else held an advantage — it was a game of horsepower as well as skill. All but two Daytona 500 winners in this time frame are NASCAR Hall of Fame members; only Foyt and Geoffrey Bodine have not been elected from a slate of winners that includes heavy hitters Bobby Allison and Bill Elliott, as well as Richard Petty.

Restrictor-Plate Era: 1988-99

Championships by Daytona 500 winners: One (Jeff Gordon, 1997)
Average points finish of Daytona 500 winners: 8.5

When NASCAR introduced restrictor plates to slow cars down on superspeedways, it had the unintended consequence of equalizing horsepower as well. Engine builders couldn’t squeeze much extra out of an engine that was starved for oxygen. That allowed some different players in the Daytona 500 game.

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If the previous 15 years was an era of champions winning the Great American Race, the next decade introduced some unpredictability into the game. Derrike Cope’s 1990 victory is considered one of the race’s greatest upsets. And while it’s true that Cope capitalized on Dale Earnhardt’s 11th-hour tire failure to win the race, it’s equally true that he was running well enough to capitalize on that. Cope’s 18th-place points finish in 1990 is the lowest of any Daytona winner racing an entire season in this time period (Bobby Allison finished 33rd in an injury-shortened 1988 season).

Drivers became known as plate specialists during this time period. Earnhardt, in particular, was so skilled at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway that it was said that he could see the air around him when working in the draft; his lone Daytona 500 win came in 1998. Sterling Marlin won a pair of 500s for Morgan-McClure Motorsports in 1994 and ’95 as that single-car operation was always a threat at the superspeedways.

Plates did tighten up the field and change the drafting game, although not to the degree that later rules packages would. Dale Jarrett (1993, 1996) and Jeff Gordon (1997, 1999) found success with multiple 500 wins. Darrell Waltrip finally found victory lane in 1989, and Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison added their names to the winners’ list as well … 

During this time, while only Gordon won the race and the title in the same year, a win in what was by then the season-opening race was a good indicator that a team was equipped to have a strong season overall. Only Cope and Marlin finished outside the top 10 in points; seven winners finished in the top five. 

Pack-Racing Era: 2000-13

Championships by Daytona 500 winners: Two (Jimmie Johnson, 2006, 2013)
Average points finish of Daytona 500 winners: 11.38

By the time the century turned, restrictor-plate racing was evolving into a new game entirely. Gone were the smaller groups of cars that could work the draft to run each other down and pass, only to form other smaller groups. The smaller packs were replaced by one big, snarling mass of cars, door-to-door and bumper-to-bumper. NASCAR loved it and made changes to the cars to encourage it, mandating gear ratios and suspensions.

The new breed of pack racing made the Daytona 500 and the other three plate races a bit more unpredictable. The cars were so equal that almost anyone had a machine capable of winning, even teams and drivers who had little success elsewhere. That made the 500 the weakest indicator of the rest of the season it ever was; while Jimmie Johnson went on to win the title after both of his wins (2006 and 2013), the average points finish in this era was the lowest of any time period in the sport. Only four 500 winners other than Johnson went on to finish in the top 10 in season points: Jarrett (2000, fourth), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2004, fifth), Kevin Harvick (2007, 10th) and Matt Kenseth (2012, seventh) found that level of success. 

The Chase era began in 2004, but unlike what was coming next, the 500 win didn’t guarantee a spot among the contenders. In that span from 2000 to 2013, underdog winners became more common in the 500 as well: Michael Waltrip (2001, 2003), Ward Burton (2002) and Trevor Bayne (2011) hadn’t set the world on fire before their wins and didn’t become overnight successes because of them. As notable as the unexpected drivers who did win it, though, were a few who didn’t: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are among the top drivers who never won the 500 (Busch is still active) as the competition equalized.

Playoff Era: 2014-present

Championships by Daytona 500 winners: None
Average points finish of Daytona 500 winners: 9.22

The playoffs didn’t affect the racing in the season opener much; it’s been said that the real season starts in week two, because that’s when teams and drivers start playing the points game — the 500 is still all about the win.

Despite the fact that it remained a race that was open to underdog winners, the average points finish ticked up a few places, and the win-and-you’re-in playoffs play a role, because the lowest a playoff driver can finish is 16th in points. While there could be enough winners in the next 25 races that the 500 winner could miss out based on points, it hasn’t happened yet. That means the days of a 17th-25th-place team finding early glory just to fade from view are all but over. 

Making the playoffs doesn’t mean making the final cut, but it has elevated a couple of teams to higher finishes after a Daytona victory. Without their wins in the 500, Austin Dillon (2018) and Michael McDowell (2021) would have missed the playoff cut entirely.

Winning the Daytona 500 is something that most drivers will not achieve in their careers. Champions and Hall of Famers tried and failed. But win or lose, it rarely defines a season; few winners of the Great American race have leapfrogged to the title in the same year, and many drivers who have hoisted NASCAR’s most coveted race trophy never did or never will hoist the Bill France Cup as champions. 

Stenhouse doesn’t head into the rest of the regular season grind as an instant title favorite. No driver has gone on to win it all from a Daytona victory since the playoffs changed the game. 

But Stenhouse just had the biggest day of his career. If he goes on to win a title, that’s icing on his cake. If he never wins another race, he’ll always have Daytona.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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kb

Oh dear freaking GOD!!!!!!!!!!! He “wins” under a huge delay caution where to the most obvious of cautions should have been thrown immediately. Logano got screwed. Seems to have some half-brained idiot who was asleep at the wheel or a good NASCAR solider wanting the CHEBBIE to win thus hitting the caution button as a short nap. Nope Logano got screwed like him or not. Video is clear.

The problem is Ricky “Won” and this will be as bad as the TREVOR B. taking credit for joined bumper win, which his “drafting partner” should have had the trophy with him, and yet all these years later in the NASCAR media his voice is still heard as if he “won”, and still a part of the media!

WRECKHOUSE????? Now we have to hear about him. Lord…NASCAR screwed the whole weekend when it counted the most for fans expecting a non-caution finish.

Kevin in SoCal

If they throw the caution right away, the fans complain they should have let the race finish.
If they wait to see if the race can finish, but have to throw the caution, the fans complain that they waited to get the right driver the win.

(roll eyes)

Bill B

Yep. Who we like and dislike warps our perception. Which is fine, but a lot of people won’t admit that. I do.

janice

one race does not a season champion make.

Bill B

The Daytona and Talladega races are lottery races. Luck matters more than anything else.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B
Carl D.

I agree that luck is by far the biggest advantage to have in the super-speedway races, but a win is a win and it gets you in the “playoffs”. Teams like JTG know those races are their best chance to make it to the post-season. Stenhouse has little chance of making the final four, but winning the Daytona 500 is a heck of a consolation prize.

Bill B

Teams like JTG know those races are their best chance to make it to the post-season.”
And that’s what makes the “win and you’re in” and entire post season dog and pony show such a farce.

DoninAjax

You forgot that Atlanta is now a pack track, just list the brain trust at NA$CAR wanted.

Bill B

I was going to include Atlanta but I need to wait until the race is run again this year to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.

Marc

I would have thought they’d consider running the intermediate package this year. It was discussed here, I think, last summer, and I never heard a suggestion that it would produce dangerously fast speeds. I know they like pack racing.

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