Daytona: The one that got away?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Some of the best players in NFL history never won a Super Bowl. The same is true of the World Series for baseball legends.

So the long list of accomplished NASCAR drivers who are winless in the Daytona 500 shouldn't feel so bad. Or should they?

One big difference between the NASCAR guys and the star athlete who didn't get a Super Bowl or World Series ring: Everybody who makes it to stardom in Sprint Cup gets to play in the Daytona 500.

No one is 0-for-25 in the Super Bowl, as Mark Martin is in the Daytona 500.

"It's time," Martin said after winning the pole for the first time. "I haven't won it yet, but this is the best shot I've had. As long as I'm driving for this team, it just might happen."

Champions in football and baseball obviously made it to the big event, but several NASCAR champions are winless in the Daytona 500, NASCAR's biggest event.

Tony Stewart is a two-time Cup champion, but he's 0-for-11 in the Great American Race on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Bobby Labonte, the 2000 Cup champ, is making his 18th start in the Daytona 500 and has yet to go to Victory Lane in NASCAR's signature race.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 champion, earned more points in the four restrictor-plate races than any other driver last year, but he never has won a plate race. If he doesn't win on Sunday, Busch will be 0-for-10 in the Daytona 500.

Jeff Burton has 21 Cup victories, but he's 0-for-16 in this race.

Those are the ones who stand out among the men who will start the 52nd running of the event Sunday, but they aren't alone in history. They're in good company.

Some of the best ever to sit in a stock car never got it done in the big race.

Two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte was 0-for-28 in the Daytona 500. Rusty Wallace, who won the 1989 Cup crown, went 0-for-23 in the 500.

But there is hope to break the jinx for the current crop of Daytona 500 non-winners. Three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip didn't win it until his 17th try.

And seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt had to wait until his 20th attempt to finally win it in 1998. Earnhardt won everything you could win at Daytona over the years, posting 34 Daytona victories in his career. But only one of those was a Daytona 500.

Stewart has followed a similar path. He's won the July Cup event, he's won in the Bud Shootout and he's won in the Daytona 500 qualifying races. He's also won at Daytona in the Nationwide Series and the former IROC series.

"When you've won everything but the 500, it's hard to have that confidence that you know how to win the 500," Stewart said. "We know how to win all the other races. We just have to figure out how to win the one that means the most."

So what's left to figure out?

"I don't know about this race," Stewart said. "I feel like we're as prepared as we've ever been and I have just as good a stuff as I've ever had. But I've never come to the Daytona 500 and felt like I didn't have good enough equipment to win. I just didn't always do a good enough job."

Martin said even doing a good job isn't always enough. Luck plays a bigger role in the Daytona 500 than almost any other race.

"It's different than it used to be," said Martin, who lost to Kevin Harvick by inches in the 2007 Daytona 500. "It used to be you just had to have a really good car. Now everybody's got a really good car. Now you just have to have a car like everyone else's and be in the front at the end."

Carl Edwards has been in front a few times, but he's winless in five Daytona 500 starts. Edwards is making his 35th start in a Daytona event, but his only victory was the 2004 truck series race.

"That was nice, but it's not comparable to the Daytona 500," Edwards said.
"To win the 500 would be something no one can take off your résumé. It's there. You did it. You won the race.

"No matter what happened the rest of the year, if we were to win the 500, I could hang my hat on that and say, 'That was OK. That was a good accomplishment.'"

These cars will be running in packs at speeds over 190 mph Sunday, but Edwards said it isn't really speed that wins it.

"You need a fast car, but you've got to have a great-handling race car," he said. "And you really have to be lucky and make it through the wrecks.
So luck is a huge part of it. Some people might call it fate, especially here."

Martin says a lot of things go through a man's mind when he racing at Daytona.

"I try to focus on the positive and the good memories and what a privilege it is," Martin said, "because it's easy to forget that and focus on the things that aren't so pleasant. I'm ready to change that."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.