It is difficult to win the Daytona 500, and it should be. The list of standout drivers who have not won the 500 is long. It includes otherwise reliable people like Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Tony Stewart, Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte.
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There is another surprising list, and it is made up of drivers who won the 500 but needed much of their careers to do so. At the top of that list, of course, is the illustrious Dale Earnhardt, who won virtually everything else at Daytona International Speedway with ease but needed 20 years to win its most important race.
Earnhardt had the longest pre-win drought of any of the 33 Daytona 500 winners. Other drivers who finally conquered the race after years of struggle: Buddy Baker (18), Darrell Waltrip (16) and Bobby Allison (14).
Dave Marcis, he of the wingtip shoes and never-say-quit persistence, ran in the 500 a record 33 times without a victory.
And that brings us to Mark Martin, a man for whom restrictor-plate racing is akin to having a root canal without anesthesia while also plunging his hands into a vat of boiling water. He doesn’t like Daytona and Talladega and doesn’t mind telling you so.
No active driver has run more Daytona 500s than Martin, who has been in the race 25 times, without a victory.
Perhaps Martin relocated his primary residence to Daytona Beach some years ago so he could drive past the speedway occasionally and snarl and grimace.
His most excruciating “loss” came in 2007 when he was edged by Kevin Harvick in a somewhat controversial finish that Martin could have protested but, being the class guy he is, did not.
As has been pointed out repeatedly, Martin also has not won the Sprint Cup championship. When he finally retires, assuming he ever does, he could wander off into the wilderness without those two important lines on his long list of achievements.
He will start from the pole position in Sunday’s race and figures to have perhaps his best chance ever to win the 500. Does it matter if he never does?
“Nobody will ever remember Mark Martin for not winning something,” said Baker, who won the 500 in 1980. “It doesn’t matter if he never wins the Daytona 500 or the championship. He’s a champion, especially to us. He has done too much in his career.
“That’s not to say that he doesn’t want to win it. You know he does. It’s like with Dale Earnhardt. He always said it didn’t matter if he never won this race, but when he did I think it meant more to him than anything else ever did.”
Dale Jarrett, one of only five drivers who have won the 500 at least three times, said this week that he is recognized more often for winning the sport’s biggest race than for being a Sprint Cup champion.
Why hasn’t Martin won the 500?
“I never had the fastest car,” he said to laughter.
This year, at least measured by qualifying, he does. But having the fastest car these days doesn’t mean as much as it did “back in the day,” and Martin realizes speed isn’t as important at Daytona as drafting and circumstances.
“I’m going into it without looking at expectations,” Martin said. “I’m just going into it with enthusiasm and excitement knowing that I have a race team that can do it. And we will go out there and we’ll see how it shakes out.”
He doesn’t stay awake at night nervously fidgeting about never having won the Great American Race, but it’s a resume line he certainly would like to complete.
“Have you seen that trophy?” he asked. “It would definitely be the biggest trophy I have. And I’ve got a lot of them, but I don’t have anything like that.”
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Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.