Commentary

Drivers agree: Cup title worth more than Daytona 500 victory

Daytona 500 victory or a Sprint Cup title? Which one do drivers covet most? The answer is a no-brainer, writes Terry Blount. A win at Daytona doesn't make you a champion.

Updated: February 5, 2008, 1:42 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Every NASCAR driver dreams of winning the Daytona 500. And every driver hopes he's good enough to win a Sprint Cup championship someday.

But which do they want more?

Professional athletes in other sports roll their eyes when asked: "Would you rather win a most valuable player award or a championship?"

The answer always is a championship ring over individual honors.

In NASCAR, that question doesn't apply. If you win a Sprint Cup championship, you are the most valuable player. It's still a team achievement, but it's also the ultimate individual accomplishment.

But a championship is not the same as in other pro sports. Baseball players want to win the World Series. NFL players want to win the Super Bowl.

A championship is not NASCAR's Super Bowl. The Daytona 500 is.

Taking the checkered flag in that race is like draining a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win the NBA Finals or launching a walk-off home run to win Game 7 of the World Series.

Winning the Daytona 500 is the ultimate single-day achievement in NASCAR.

So here's the question: Would you rather win a Cup championship or the Daytona 500?

"For sure the championship," Carl Edwards said. "Now, once I won the championship, I would focus on the 500. In a perfect world, I would win both. But, I'd for sure like to win the championship."

A Cup title is the clear consensus for drivers who have yet to win either.

[+] EnlargeDerrike Cope
AP Photo/Kathy WillensDerrike Cope will never win a Cup title, but he'll always have Daytona.

"Obviously, winning Daytona would be huge," Ryan Newman said. "Being a history buff of the sport, it's really an honor to run in the same race as so many incredible drivers. And it would be awesome to win the 50th Daytona 500. But our ultimate goal is to win the championship."

One could argue that fans remember Daytona 500 winners more than Cup champions. People who normally don't watch NASCAR will tune in and watch the Daytona 500, just like people watch the Kentucky Derby or the Masters.

Winning Daytona is your chance to shine on the sport's biggest day. It's also the biggest payday each year. The winner's share this year likely will top $1.5 million.

It pales in comparison to the money a driver earns for winning the title, though. Jimmie Johnson earned $7.3 million from the points fund and more than $15 million overall for his 2007 championship.

But the drivers aren't thinking about the money. This is about their place in history.

"For me, winning the Cup title would be my ultimate goal in racing," David Gilliland said. "Winning the Daytona 500 would be very special, but nothing like winning a Cup title."

You can win the Daytona 500 and still be Derrike Cope. No one would say Cope is a great race car driver. He's a guy who won the 1990 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt blew a tire at the end.

Cope isn't alone. Michael Waltrip and Ward Burton won the Daytona 500. Sterling Marlin won it twice. Those victories were great accomplishments that no one can take away, but this trio won't rank with the greats of the sport.

A Cup championship, however, is different. No one wins a Cup title on a fluke. You don't luck into it. Winning the Cup means you outraced the best of the best in a 36-race schedule over 10 months.

The choice is a no-brainer for most drivers.

"Easy. It's a championship," Brian Vickers said.

His Red Bull Racing teammate agrees: "The championship would mean more to me," said A.J. Allmendinger, "although winning the Daytona 500 would be an incredible accomplishment."

Winning the Daytona 500 is the only realistic option for some drivers. Dave Blaney, who is 45, isn't going to win a Cup title, but he could win the Daytona 500.

We've won championships, so I would love to win a Daytona 500. But if your goal is to win the championship, you have to treat the Daytona 500 the same as you do any other race on the schedule.

-- Tony Stewart

Others who probably fit in that category are Robby Gordon, Elliott Sadler and even Mark Martin. He came inches short of winning the Daytona 500 last year in his first season as a part-time driver.

Bobby Labonte has won a Cup championship, but not a Daytona 500. Winning the big race is a long shot now, but the chances of that happening for Labonte are far better than those of winning another title.

How drivers look at it sometimes depends on what they've accomplished. Tony Stewart has two championships and two Allstate 400s at Indy, but he has yet to win the Daytona 500.

"Do I want to win it? Absolutely," Stewart said. "We've won championships, so I would love to win a Daytona 500. But if your goal is to win the championship, you have to treat the Daytona 500 the same as you do any other race on the schedule."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has said he would love to win the Daytona 500 again in his first race for Hendrick Motorsports. But Earnhardt would accept a 40th-place finish at Daytona this month if he knew he would win the championship in November.

Motivations differ. Kurt Busch, who won the 2004 Cup title, hasn't won the Daytona 500. But his boss, Roger Penske, hasn't won either one.

"It's easy to say that I'd rather have a Daytona 500 win now," Busch said. "But right now, I'm greedy and I want both. I want a Daytona 500 win on the way to winning the championship for Roger."

Every driver wants to win the Daytona 500. But winning that race doesn't make you a champion, and that's the prize drivers want most of all.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter