Daytona 500 proves elusive for many, even some series champs

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Kyle Busch, center, stands on pit road with his crew chief Randall Burnett, left, and car owner Richard Childress during qualifying for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch peered at a handful of Powerball tickets left behind as part of a giveaway and was told he could have them.

“Better chances of winning that than the Daytona 500,” Busch cracked.

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It’s easy to understand why Busch would feel that way. The two-time Cup Series champion is winless in 17 starts in NASCAR's most prestigious race, a skid that’s more of a head-scratcher than a heartbreaker considering Busch has won at just about every track on the circuit.

He's even partied in victory lane at Daytona International Speedway, only in the summer race. But the ultimate prize on NASCAR’s ultimate stage has eluded him, maybe even gnawed at him, throughout his professional career.

“It’s just not happened yet for me," said Busch, who wrecked while leading a qualifying race Thursday night. "Some guys, this is the only race they ever win. Other guys, they win it two or three times. It’s the Super Bowl of our sport, and it’s hard to accomplish this one.”

Now driving for Richard Childress Racing in the No. 8 Chevrolet, Busch will try to change his Daytona 500 fortunes in the 65th running of “The Great American Race” on Sunday. And he has plenty of company in the 0-for-500 club, with four other drivers also having double-digit droughts in NASCAR’s season opener.

Kyle Larson, the 2021 series champ, could join the club soon. He's current 0 for 9 in the 500.

“It’s just a difficult style of racing that I just haven’t had the best of time in my career,” Larson said. 'I used to always say it’s bad luck, but I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore."

Others share that sentiment:

MARTIN TRUEX JR. (0 for 18)

Truex owns NASCAR’s longest active losing streak in the 500. The 2017 series champ won each of the first two stages last year before getting caught up in a five-car crash with 50 laps to go. He also was the runner-up in the 2016 Daytona 500, edged at the finish line by 0.011 seconds by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin.

Truex doesn’t have a top-10 finish in the 500 since, but he’s feeling good after winning the exhibition Clash at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum two weeks ago.

“It was just good for confidence, good for momentum,” Truex said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team so fired up to get to the racetrack as my guys have been. I think that’s a good thing and hopefully we can just keep that momentum going.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI (0 for 13)

Keselowski has won six times at Talladega, making him one of NASCAR’s top superspeedway racers, but he’s had mostly bad luck in the Daytona 500.

The 2012 series champ had a legit shot in 2021 before then-Team Penske teammate Joey Logano blocked him on the final lap and caused a multi-car melee that allowed Michael McDowell to drive by and end up in victory lane for one of the more shocking finishes in race history.

Keselowski responded last year by winning a qualifying race and then led a race-high 67 laps in the 500 — but ultimately came up short again.

“I have six Talladega wins, which is great, but I’d like to have a Daytona 500 win to go with them,” said Keselowski, who is entering his second year as a driver/owner at RFK Racing. “I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had some good races and bad races on plate tracks — and everything in-between. I’m just really hungry to bring this one home.

“I’ve been so close the last few years. It’s been painful to walk away — not so much empty-handed — but without the trophy.”

ARIC ALMIROLA (0 for 12)

Almirola seemed content to walk away from full-time racing after his last Daytona 500, a fifth-place finish in 2022. But he delayed his pending retirement a few months later and remained at Stewart-Haas Racing for at least another year. Now, Almirola gets another shot at the 500.

“If you win Dover, you don’t become the Dover 400 champion,” said Almirola, who won a rain-shortened July race at Daytona in 2014 and picked up another victory in a qualifier Thursday. “When you win the Daytona 500, you become the Daytona 500 champion for the rest of your life."

RICKY STENHOUSE JR. (0 for 11)

Both of Stenhouse’s career wins came at superspeedways in 2017 — at the summer race at Daytona and at Talladega. He’s been a consistent contender since, although his results have slipped since leaving Roush Fenway Racing following the 2019 season.

He was running near the front with six laps to go last year when Keselowski gave him a push that turned him sideways and eventually into the wall. He ended up 28th. His only top-10 finish in the 500 came in 2014.

“Everybody is tensed up here knowing that you have one shot to win the Daytona 500,” he said. “You look at the careers of people in our sport that accomplished a lot but never won the 500. It shows how tough it is.”

MAKING HISTORY

Hall of Famers Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin are the most notable drivers who never won the race.

Truex, Busch, Keselowski, Almirola, Stenhouse and even Larson will be looking for a breakthrough Sunday. And no one should be surprised to see it happen.

After all, Hall of Famer David Pearson needed 15 tries to win the Daytona 500. Busch’s older brother Kurt needed 16. And NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt won in his 20th try — an iconic moment in series history.

“You just come in here and treat it as if it’s any other race,” Kyle Busch said. “There is great opportunity to be able to win the race, and if you put yourself in the right spot, you can."

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