Through the nature of its racing, the Daytona 500 is often hyped as anyone’s to win. But the reality is that the “Great American Race” has only opened the gates to victory lane to a select few over the years, with some of the sport’s biggest names never hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy (pictured above).
Winning Daytona is an accomplishment attached to a driver for life. It is the culmination of a winter’s worth of work mixed with a few hours of a driver’s luck and skill. Here are how a few drivers put together 500 miles to make themselves known as a Daytona 500 champion:
On the importance of starting position…
AUSTIN DILLON: We won it from the back when we went to a backup car. If it’s a fast car or it’s undriveable, I don’t think it matters where you start — you have to have the car driving good. I’d rather start toward the front though, and see how it plays out instead of having to work my way to the front.
KURT BUSCH: It’s really not all that important because of how long the race is and how much goes on. You always want to have a fast car qualifying and have a good qualifying race, but there’s just so much time and you’re not worried about stage points at this race. You’re worried about the checkered flag.
JOEY LOGANO: Our strategy is always to stay up front, whether that’s right or wrong. We want to be up in the front all the time, so starting up front helps. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t qualify well, but it helps.
RYAN NEWMAN: It’s important. I’ve seen guys crash going into Turn 1 on the first lap. It’s important to try to avoid that first crash because there’s no guarantee where it’s going to be.
Approaching the first third of the race …
DILLON: I’m just making sure my car can stay in the draft the first third of the race. If it can’t, we’ll back off and try to adjust. If I’m up front, I’m trying to hold that position and get some stage points. It’s based off feel. If I feel like the pack is being smart or I feel like the intensity is rising, I don’t really want to be in that situation because you want to be there at the end. So, putting yourself in the right positions is so key.
BUSCH: Primarily I’m watching others and staying out of trouble. When you’re watching others, you’re trying to see who’s strong and who’s not. The biggest thing is just staying out of trouble in that first sector and then anticipating if it’s going to be a green flag stop — the yellow flag stop helps, but sometimes those green stops with a lot people, first time of the year, it gets pretty wild.
DENNY HAMLIN: Definitely a little bit cautious, but with the stages and points at stake, you’ve got to try and put yourself in position to be inside the top three or four. Outside of that you got to just make sure you’ve got a race car until the end. We’ve seen so many wrecks over the last few years leading into the end of stages, and that kills your chance if you can’t get to the finish so it’s important for us to make sure we’re there.
NEWMAN: You want to be up front and you want to be out of the crashes. You have to execute cleanly on pit road because the second you put yourself a lap down because of a mistake, you’re at the mercy of how many cautions you get and that’s no way to race. Realistically, just keeping the fenders on it and getting your car, and keeping your car, so it’s driving (well) and putting yourself in position where you know you’re going to be capable toward the end.
Whether handing or speed is the focus …
DILLON: You want it to handle well throughout the course of the race and at the end you want it to be fast. It’s a nice blend because at the end of the race you’re holding on either way. Handling comes into play, but you want the speed with it.
BUSCH: Each year’s a little different. If it’s cool out then speed is more important. If it’s hot and the track’s going to be slick, then handling is more important — and you have to have that built into the car before you even show up.
HAMLIN: Handling is the number one thing that I believe I need to be successful. But obviously you can’t do it with a slow car, either.
LOGANO: I always like to have a car that handles well so I can make aggressive moves. The course of the run changes as tires wear out and the draft changes a lot from the beginning of the race to the end as drivers learn the trends that are going on, (like) who’s strong and who’s not.
NEWMAN: There’s always speed and handling, so the second you have to start lifting and moving around, and running the non-ideal part of the racetrack, depending on the draft, you put yourself at risk to not keep up and getting passed.