Daytona is NASCAR's biggest prize

Updated: February 15, 2004, 6:30 AM ET
By Jonathan Baum | ESPN.com

Ask drivers about the importance of the Daytona 500 and you'll hear two different answers.

"It's the one everyone wants to win."

Or ...

"It's big, but there are 35 other races, too."

Winning the Daytona 500 can more or less make a career. Just ask Derrike Cope, who might as well have his name legally changed to "1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope."

But for many of Sunday's race favorites -- drivers such as Earnhardt Jr., Waltrip, Gordon, Stewart, Harvick, among others -- there is also a bigger picture and perhaps a greater goal: the Nextel Cup championship.

The two goals certainly aren't mutually exclusive, but six seasons have come and gone since the last time a Daytona 500 winner went on to win the Cup title that same season. It was Jeff Gordon who scored the exacta in 1997, scoring his first of two Daytona 500 victories and ultimately winning nine more races en route to his second Cup championship.

For a man who has achieved both of stock car racing's biggest goals, the duality of the importance of Sunday's race is quite clear.

"There is so much expectation and preparation that goes into this race. And, for good reason. It really is the event that we all want to win and we all want to be a part of," said Gordon, who struggled in qualifying and had to use a provisional to secure a spot in the field. "We do recognize it as our elite event, but we also know that points are the same here as they are next week in Rockingham as far as the championship goes. We try to recognize that and be aware of that."

Ward Burton
Ward Burton won the '02 Daytona 500, one of his five career Cup wins.

Next weekend's Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham might award the same number of points to its winner as Sunday's victor at Daytona will receive, but there's no comparison between the two races -- and Gordon isn't pretending that there is.

"It's one of those things that when you win (the Daytona 500), it's one of the highest highs and when you have a bad day it's the lowest of the lows. You have to really let both those emotions roll off your back when you leave here because you're heading to Rockingham and it's time to get focused on the championship."

No other race on the Cup schedule is preceded by months of anticipation and weeks of on-track preparation. Speedweeks at Daytona could be seen as a prelude not just to Sunday's main event but also to the entire season.

But for all of the work the drivers and teams put in at the speedway in February, the payoff they are working for doesn't come at Homestead in November. Sure, winning the Cup championship would be a major accomplishment -- it perhaps even surpasses the importance of winning at Daytona.

But the Cup championship isn't what Speedweeks is about. Rather, it's about winning on Sunday.

"(What it means to win is) almost hard to put into words, but I'll do my best," said three-time 500 winner and '99 Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, who won last weekend's Budweiser Shootout under the lights at Daytona. "The money, when I first won the Daytona 500 and the other two years with it also, I couldn't even start to tell you what it paid to win it because it didn't really matter, and after it was over it still didn't matter. It was about having that Daytona 500 trophy and the opportunities that came along with that later."

Michael Waltrip has won two of the last three Daytona 500s, and he and DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. are considered to be the race favorites. And although Junior is entering just his fifth full season as a Cup driver, many are wondering how long it will take him to claim his first Daytona 500 win.

To say teams put more emphasis on winning this race is an understatement. After all, it's not just about telling anyone who will listen how important the Daytona 500 is and how much the team wants to win it. Rather, it's about focus and resources. And if Earnhardt Jr., who will start from the pole because Greg Biffle drops to the back of the field after an engine change, fails to win Sunday, it won't be because of lack of effort or preparation.

"This is a real important race. Winning the Daytona 500 is one of the top two goals of my career," said Earnhardt Jr., who finished second to Waltrip in the 2001 running of the Daytona 500 -- the same race during which Earnhardt's father was killed in a last-lap crash. "We put a lot of emphasis on winning this race. We probably spend 25 percent of our company revenue or income on (restrictor) plate stuff. I think a lot of teams spend a good chunk -- maybe 15 percent or something like that. That's just a guess. A lot goes into this. It's pretty important to all of us."

Junior might be looking for his first Daytona 500 win, but Waltrip isn't exactly content with stopping at two 500 victories.

"I want to win the Daytona 500," Waltrip said. "Since Dale (Earnhardt) hired me in 2001, that has been my agenda. We have done it twice, and anything less will come short of our goal. ... This place has always been a favorite of mine. It takes me back to my childhood of coming here as a race fan and a fan of my brother. My mom and dad would take me out of grade school to come to Speedweeks. Now, as a competitor, that feeling is rekindled. I felt that way before we won the Daytona 500 and now that I have won it twice, the feeling is magnified -- I can't wait. To have the chance to win it a third time is unimaginable.

"It's the pinnacle of our sport. It's quite an honor, and I don't take it lightly."

It took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to score his first Daytona 500 win despite winning pretty much everything else there was to win at the track. And with seven Cup championships under Earnhardt's belt, a Daytona 500 win was the only thing missing from his résumé by the time that 1998 race he won rolled around.

To have the chance to win it a third time is unimaginable. ... It's the pinnacle of our sport. It's quite an honor, and I don't take it lightly.
Michael Waltrip

Today, the list of veterans who have yet to find victory lane at the Great American Race is impressive. Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte have 153 race wins and four Cup championships between them, but not ne has won NASCAR's biggest race.

Rudd never has finished better than fourth in the 500, though he did start from the pole in 1983.

"We're hoping this Daytona 500 will be our turn," said Rudd, who will start 15th Sunday. "It would be a big deal. It would be big. You talk to somebody that doesn't really know racing and over the years I've always used it to describe what I do. I say, 'You know the Daytona 500?' and they say, 'Oh, yeah, I know what kind of racing you do now.'

"Even if they aren't familiar with the sport, you mention the Daytona 500 and they know about that race. It would mean a lot."

Rudd's former teammate Jarrett said that if he or current teammate Elliott Sadler, who starts second Sunday, can't win this weekend, he wouldn't mind seeing Wallace take the checkered flag. Wallace, who hasn't won a Cup race since winning at Fontana, Calif., in 2001, makes his 22nd Daytona 500 start on Sunday.

And for his part, Wallace is feeling good heading into Sunday's race.

"All the pieces of the puzzle are in place, and I'm about as confident as ever going into Daytona," said Wallace, who starts 17th. "It would definitely be a helluva deal if we pull it off. Man, it'd be nice to put an end to the streak we've been trying to shed for so long in the biggest stock car race of them all."

Wallace's best finish in the 500 is third, when he crossed the line behind Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. three years ago.

"After all the years trying and being so close, it would certainly be part of a storybook script to finally win it. To come back to Daytona with a new contract from Miller Lite, a new crew chief in Larry Carter and riding such a long streak without winning -- a victory in the Daytona 500 would be the biggest win of my career and a day to remember for the rest of my life."

Jonathan Baum is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com.