A Daytona 500 victory sometimes can define a NASCAR driver’s career.

Dale Earnhardt’s win in the 1998 race, accomplished after almost two decades of struggle, was one of the most popular of his career. Lee Petty’s victory in the very first 500 in 1959 has been one of the most replayed in the history of the sport. Darrell Waltrip’s win in his 17th try was particularly memorable, in part because of his spirited victory lane celebration.

The drivers who perhaps can appreciate a 500 win the most are those who still search for one. Although some dismiss the thought that a career without a victory in NASCAR’s biggest race would be a damaged one, there is little question that drivers don’t want to wander off into retirement with that big zero on their records.

Among those seriously searching for that initial 500 win this year will be Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Carl Edwards.

Stewart has three wins at Daytona in 26 starts, but he has never scored in the 500. His capabilities at the 2.5-mile track have never been in question. He is a master of the draft, can punch the button in tight competition situations and seems to know where to be over the closing miles.

But Stewart too often has been the pusher and not the pushed when it comes time to win the race. He’ll be looking to be on the correct side of that equation this go-round.

Stewart, a former IndyCar series champion, also has never won the Indianapolis 500, the race that, when he watched it as a kid, drew him into the sport. He might not get the chance to fill that hole on his worksheet, but Daytona will be waiting again next week.

Martin never has kept a secret about his distaste for restrictor-plate racing. He doesn’t like competition that is largely out of the driver’s control, and racing at Daytona and Talladega often can be colored in that fashion.

Martin, driving a schedule that probably will include 25 races this season, has driven in 53 points races at Daytona without scoring a win. Clearly, he’s overdue.

Edwards stands 0-for-14 at Daytona and probably has many more years to log that first 500 win, but he’s looking for a dynamite start to his season after coming so frustratingly close to winning the Sprint Cup title last year.

Edwards opened 2011 by finishing second to 500 winner Trevor Bayne. A win this time would put his name in the big lights and give a dynamic start to a season in which he hopes to gain the one extra point he needed last season.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.