Clint Bowyer dramatically dropped the microphone and looked at a different reporter in mock disbelief.
“This is the second question I’ve had today,” he exclaimed. “I just got here. Wait until I get over there to punch me in the face.”
RACER had started to pose a question to the Stewart-Haas Racing driver about being 0-for-14 in the Daytona 500. His reaction brought a stop to the rest of the question, which was about the Great American Race becoming his white whale.
“I don’t know the white whale thing,” said Bowyer. “We don’t have whales in Kansas; they didn’t offer that terminology. That was a long ways from our reality. Horseshoe or something like that. You have to redneck it up a little bit for me.”
When using a white-whale expression, one is talking about something that has become an obsession or ultimate goal. Bowyer is one of a few big-name drivers in the 62nd Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Fox) who has yet to experience what it’s like to win the sport’s biggest race.
Has it become something Bowyer is consciously chasing?
“It’s time,” said Bowyer. “Yes, you think about it. You didn’t think about it early in your career; you just think about, ‘Oh my gosh, the Daytona 500. I want to win it so bad, I want to win it so bad,’ and years click by, and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ That opportunity only comes once a year I want to win that race. That’s the one that you want to win.
“The prestige is still there. I think the skill set that it takes to win has changed. You talk about the years, think about the way it was when I first started, what you had to overcome, and handling, slip and sliding around, and a gutsy move.
“Now it’s survival,” Bowyer continued. “You’ve got to survive. You’ve got to figure out how to find that hole that’s a safe hole that you can survive and make it to the end, because to finish first, you got to get there. It’s the hardest thing to do — get to the end of that race with all four of your fenders on it so you can have an opportunity.”
Bowyer has four top-10 finishes in the Daytona 500. He has also been on his roof, on fire, sliding across the finish line (2007). Two fourths (’09, ’10) are his best finishes in the race.
But Bowyer isn’t alone in seeing the years, many years, start adding up, and to be facing questions about not having won the Daytona 500.
Defending series champion Kyle Busch is also 0-for-14, which sounds unbelievable considering Busch has won just about everything else in the NASCAR Cup Series — including other crown jewel races like the Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400.
“Me not being able to win the Daytona 500 isn’t something that’s going to kill me, but it’s certainly going to weigh on me in the late goings of a race to try to get out there and win this thing,” said Busch. “We were so close last year. There were just a couple different circumstances (that) could have made a whole different day, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion this year. But you know, it is what it is. We’ll go out there this year and see if we can’t give it the same shot we gave it last year.”
Busch was the runner-up in 2019 to teammate Denny Hamlin, who scored his second win in the Daytona 500. And Busch knows the numbers for those who also went through a long drought before winning or those who never this race won at all.
“Tony Stewart never won, Mark Martin never won, Rusty [Wallace],” said Busch. “There are a lot of greats that haven’t. But I would definitely not want to be on that list if I had my way. But you don’t always have your way — especially in restrictor-plate racing with just how random it is. Years ago, I would say probably ’85, ’87 maybe, or earlier, it was way more skill, car, equipment, driver, that sort of stuff. But, with the restrictor-plate stuff, it’s been way more random and unexpected.”
The other two drivers on the list are also Cup Series champions. For Brad Keselowski, his “0-for” column isn’t as long as some of his fellow competitors, but he certainly feels the losses all the same.
Keselowski is 0-for-10 in the Daytona 500.
“I look at the real chances I feel like we’ve had to win it where we didn’t get crashed out, or we didn’t have things happen that we couldn’t control; and that’s the real number to me. And I think there’s really only been three of those 10 (races),” said Keselowski. “One of them I made a mistake, (another) one we just weren’t fast enough, and the third one, I think, we blew up in.
“With respect to that, it’s frustrating to not capitalize on the three opportunities I’ve probably had to win this race. But I’m confident, based on the way we ran the last four or five times here, that we’ll have that opportunity again really soon. I feel like this car that I have here for the 500 is one of the better cars I’ve ever had here.
“But at the end of the day I can’t control everyone else’s moves, and in the last four or five years, I’ve been caught up in that and you just kind of raise your hands and say, ‘We did what we could do,’ whether that’s the 500 or anything else. So that probably makes it not sting so bad, knowing that we’ve been crashed out and things that were completely out of our control and other drivers’ bad moves.
“It doesn’t make you feel good about it, though.”
Those three races Keselowski mentioned go in sequential order: 2014, ’15, and ’16. He finished third in ’14 even though he had lined up second for the final restart with three laps to go. In ’15, his Ford Mustang blew an engine. Then in ’16, Keselowski didn’t have the car to contend and wound up 20th.
Finally there’s Martin Truex Jr., the driver in Sunday’s field who has the longest drought, going at 0-for-15. However, Truex said he only thinks about that every February.
“When we’re here for the race, it’s like, ‘OK, yeah, I haven’t won it yet’,” he said. “The second still hurts from a couple years ago in ’16 (when the margin of victory was .010 seconds). I remember that vividly.
“It’s a huge race. It is the big one — everybody wants to win it. I’m no different. But I don’t lose sleep at night because I haven’t won it. I don’t think about it, I guess, any differently than any other race, other than when I come here; I don’t really worry about points. I just try to figure out a way to win it. Obviously, I haven’t done that yet.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just trying to get to the end. Every time we are around at the finish of one of these races, we’re in the mix. We have a shot. It’s just so hard. I’ve had such a hard time trying to find a way to finish superspeedway races. I’ve tried everything: riding around, racing hard, staying in the front. The other day I’m running third, and I get wrecked on a restart (in the Busch Clash). It’s like, no matter what I do, I can’t find a way to finish. I’m never the guy that caused the wrecks, but I’m always the guy in the middle of them. It’s very, very frustrating. Very frustrating. And I don’t really know what to do about it.
“That’s really my focus every time we come here — just trying to figure that out. ‘How do I get to the end?’ I know if we get to the end, we’re going to have a chance. So hopefully, this weekend, we can figure it out.”
Average finish and laps led in the Daytona 500:
Clint Bowyer – 17.4 average finish; 73 laps led
Kyle Busch – 20.7 average finish; 282 laps led
Brad Keselowski – 23.6 average finish; 38 laps led
Martin Truex Jr. – 19.3 average finish; 50 laps led