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Only Yesterday: Winning the Daytona 500 Tough Act to Follow

While the Daytona 500 has been a focal point of the NASCAR schedule since 1959, its place as the season opening event only dates back to 1982. Throughout the past four decades, a veritable who’s who of Hall of Fame drivers have claimed victory in the crown jewel of the Cup Series.

Yet, there is a particular accomplishment that only two of those winners have been able to claim: another win in the very next race.

The second race of the year doesn’t quite carry the level of prestige that the Daytona 500 does. But it does have the distinction of being a momentum killer. From Rockingham Speedway to Auto Club Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway to Phoenix Raceway, it would seem that the only thing harder than winning the 500 is following it up with another victory.

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In 1997, Jeff Gordon was ready for vengeance. He stockpiled 10 wins in 1996 only to lose the championship to his two-win teammate Terry Labonte. With team owner Rick Hendrick at home to treat both his leukemia and legal issues, the No. 24 team was ready to go bring a smile to their boss’ face with some trophies.

While the end of the ’97 Daytona 500 couldn’t have turned out better for Gordon, it wasn’t without trouble. Early on, he had a flat tire, and the subsequent green flag pit stop put him a lap down. He stayed within striking distance of the leaders but couldn’t get in front of them.

Then a fortuitous caution flag in the later stages put Gordon back on the lead lap and he marched up through the field. A spectacular accident involving Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan took those drivers out of contention and put Gordon right on the bumper of leader Bill Elliott.

On the restart with six laps to go, his teammates Labonte and Ricky Craven lined up behind him and gave Gordon the push he needed to get by Elliott. Another multi-car wreck with four laps left brought out the yellow, and the Hendrick trio cruised to the finish line, giving their owner a clean sweep of the top three positions.

Race number two on the 1997 schedule was at Rockingham. Jarrett was the class of the field on this day but it wouldn’t be enough. Despite leading 323 of the 393 laps, he wound up second.

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Good fortune befell Gordon in back-to-back races and it resulted in back-to-back wins. Just like Daytona, a late race caution brought Gordon close enough to challenge the leader. When the green flag waved, he did just that, sneaking past Jarrett and leading the final 43 laps en route to the win. Gordon would go on to claim the championship that year, the first Daytona 500 winner to earn both in the same year since 1983.

It took another 12 years before the feat was replicated. Matt Kenseth entered the 2009 season in a much different position than Gordon’s had been. Kenseth hadn’t won at all the previous year and dreamed of simply returning to victory lane before chasing a second championship.

When the 2009 Daytona 500 went green, Kenseth wasn’t one of the favorites to win. Kyle Busch spent the first half of the race with a stranglehold on the top spot. Busch led 88 of the first 123 laps, but on lap 124, the entire dynamic of the race changed when Brian Vickers was turned sideways by Dale Earnhardt Jr.; nearly a dozen cars were swept up in the melee, including the dominant Busch.

Suddenly, it seemed as if the trophy could end up in the hands of just about anyone. It almost ended up with Elliott Sadler but Kenseth snuck underneath Sadler with 52 laps remaining to take the lead.

One lap later, the yellow flag waved for a spinning car, and while under that caution, the rain began to fall. Once the downpour began, it was apparent that the race could not be restarted in a timely manner, and Kenseth was declared the winner, ending his 36-race winless streak.

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Seven days later, the Cup Series tour was out west for 500 miles at Auto Club in Fontana, Calif. The rain followed along as well, slowing the race four separate times for precipitation. Kenseth was the strongest competitor, leading 84 of the 250 laps and securing his second straight win.

So what exactly makes it that difficult to double dip into victory lane for the first two races? There are probably a few factors, but you can’t overlook the immense emotional high of winning.

When a team wins the Super Bowl, it can savor the accompanying accolades for weeks if not months. Daytona 500 winners don’t get that kind of opportunity. They’ve barely set the trophy on a shelf before packing for next weekend. Throw in the almost randomness that is superspeedway racing and the odds start getting pretty long.

It’s entirely possible this year that someone might win at Daytona International Speedway and follow it up with another triumph in the next outing at Atlanta.

But if history is any indication, I wouldn’t count on it.

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.

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