- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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In 1959 NASCAR held its inaugural Daytona 500 (this year is the 50th anniversary, in case you've been asleep for the past week and haven't yet had the logo burned into your cranial matter). Lee Petty won the Super Bowl of stock car racing and 41 races later celebrated the NASCAR Grand National championship.
Seems only fair, right? Surely, winning the sport's biggest event has to be a natural springboard to winning the Cup. Not really. More often than not, the Great American Race means little or nothing when it comes to having the Great American Season. In 49 tries, the Daytona 500 champ has managed to win the Cup a grand total of eight times, and only three of those doublers were not members of the Petty family.
So why's it so hard to do?
"You put so much into that first race because it is so huge that there is a bit of a letdown when it's over," admits crew chief-turned-color commentator Larry McReynolds, who guided both Davey Allison and Dale Earnhardt to Daytona 500 glory. "Win or lose, it's hard to keep those emotions and the working pace up at that same level when you go to the next race and start the so-called regular season."
"Plus, you can have a lucky day and win the Daytona 500," admits 1991 winner Ernie Irvan. "You can't have a lucky season and win the championship."
So, exactly how difficult has it been to win both? You only had to ask
The few, the proud
From 1959 to '71, only two men were able to back up their trip to the beach with a trip to the head table at the champion's banquet -- Lee and Richard Petty. Lee pulled it off in '59, son Richard did the deed in '64 and '71.
In 1972, the start of the sport's modern era, NASCAR slashed the schedule and put more of a premium on winning the Cup. That era began the same way the old one ended, with Richard Petty winning the 500 and the championship. He did it again in '74 and '79. Then again, if you win seven of each, there's bound to be a little crossover.
The first non-Petty to close the deal was Cale Yarborough in '77, when he won his second Daytona 500 and the first of three consecutive championships. But just in case fans began to think that winning both was the way everything was supposed to be in the NASCAR world, the racing gods prevented another two-bagger until 1997, when Jeff Gordon joined the club.
Nine years later, Gordon's protégé got in on the legend-making when Jimmie Johnson followed up his Chad Knaus-less Daytona victory with a Chad Knaus-guided Cup title nine months later.
If history is any indication, the guy leading this year's race might want to think about getting out of the gas and finishing second -- it just depends on which trophy he'd rather have.
It's getting harder
With each passing decade, winning the 500 seems to mean less and less when it comes to winning the Cup. In case you don't believe us, we dusted off our calculators to prove it.
In the 1970s, the eight modern-era Daytona 500 winners who also ran a full-time Cup schedule (A.J. Foyt was a part-timer when he won in '72) went on to average six wins per season and a second-place finish in the point standings.
The '80s produced exactly zero doublers, in part because part-timers won four of the decade's first five 500s (thanks Cale and Buddy). But the six Daytona champs who did attempt to run the full schedule averaged a slightly worse season than their '70s predecessors -- 4.6 wins and a third-place ranking in points.
The 1990s began with Earnhardt's improbable last-lap slashed tire and thusly Derrike Cope's improbable win. Again, there was a slide in the final results, as 500 winners averaged only 3.5 wins per season and slid to a ranking of 6.5, even with Gordon's 10-win championship season of '97.
But the current decade has been a total mess for Daytona champs, as they have maintained an average of three and a half wins, but have fallen off to a 12th-place finish in points!
"Yeah," says '01 and '03 winner Michael Waltrip, "I think those statistics might be my fault."
No more mo
Actually, it's only partially Mikey's fault.
In 2001, Waltrip set the dubious record of lowest points finish for a Daytona 500 winner who ran the full Cup schedule when the No. 15 NAPA Chevy fell all the way to 24th in points. That mark lasted only one year, when Ward Burton backed up his '02 victory by barely staying in the bonus money with a 25th-place effort. One year after that, Waltrip won Daytona in the rain and dropped back to 15th in points.
In the 1970s and '80s, no 500 winner fell out of the top 10 in points. Since 1990 it's happened six times. In 1990, Cope fell all the way to 18th, even with a second win at Dover, finishing one spot behind Harry Gant, who'd started one fewer race. Just three seasons ago, Jeff Gordon took his third 500 and spurred talk of "Is he the greatest driver of all time?" By fall he'd missed the Chase and had to settle for 11th in points, his worst effort since his rookie season of '93.
"Talk about humbling," Gordon says now. "You leave Daytona thinking you own the sport, that no one can beat you. Then by springtime you look like you've never driven a race car before. It certainly teaches you not to take anything for granted!"
In fact, Daytona momentum rarely lasts more than a week. In five decades of trying, the winner of the 500 has won the next race on the schedule all of three times -- Cale in '77, Petty in '83 and Gordon in '97. Seven times the Daytona winner never visited Victory Lane again that season, including last season with Kevin Harvick. Everyone remembers Dale Earnhardt's historic win in '98, but few remember that it was 55 races until his next win and he ended the season eighth in points, tying his second-worst career points finish.
"In 1979 the fight broke out between Cale and Donnie Allison," recalls Darrell Waltrip. "When they wrecked each other, Richard Petty slipped into the lead and won that race. I finished second and ended up losing the championship by 11 dadgum points. If I finish first and he finishes second it might have been a whole different story. So don't tell me that winning or losing that race doesn't have a long-term effect on the season. The points mean just as much in February as they do in November."
Then again ...
So, in his quest for a Cup three-peat, will Jimmie Johnson suddenly be mindful of his NASCAR history books and lift while leading the final lap of the 500. Will he have this article printed and taped to his instrument panel as a reminder that past is prologue and that he's already used up his history-defying chip?
As any driver will tell you, winning the Daytona 500 is always going to be better than not winning it, and after he takes care of business A he'll see what can be done about business B.
"Did we have a disappointing season in 2002?" Ward Burton asks rhetorically. "Hell, yes, we had a disappointing season. But do I look back on that year and say, 'Man, what a crappy year'? No, and neither does anyone else. My name is on that Harley J. Earl Trophy and there's nothing anybody can do about that. Last July they invited me down to Daytona to hang out with all the other winners -- Pearson, Petty, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and me. You tell me what's disappointing about that."
Nothing, brother. Nothing at all.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.
Winning the Great American Race doesn't necessarily translate into a Great American Season. More often than not, writes Ryan McGee, the winner of the Daytona 500 does not go on to win the Cup title.