Column: NASCAR Champions Still Racing For That First Daytona 500 Trophy
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – There are five former NASCAR Cup Series champions competing in Sunday’s DAYTONA 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio); still looking for a victory in the sport’s grandest race.
Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have six season titles among themselves but a combined zero wins in the DAYTONA 500.
The 2021 season champ Larson will start his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s race. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott, the 2020 champion, will start eighth Sunday in the No. 9 Chevrolet. The two have 16 DAYTONA 500 starts between them with Larson’s best showing of seventh in 2019 and Elliott’s runner-up effort in 2021.
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 season champion will line up 10th on the grid Sunday. He has 13 starts in the DAYTONA 500 and only three top 10s. His best finish in the 500 is third in 2014, however he won the 2016 summer race at Daytona.
Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series champion, rolls off 16th on Sunday. The driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota holds the longest record of futility in this race among active drivers. He is 0-for-18 in the 500 and 0-for-35 on the Daytona International Speedway high banks in the NASCAR Cup Series. His best finish in the DAYTONA 500 was runner-up in 2016, but that’s one of only three top-10 showings in the race.
And Kyle Busch, a two-time series champion, is 0-for-17 in the DAYTONA 500 with a best showing of runner-up in 2019. He will make his first start for Richard Childress Racing from the rear of the field after having to go to a back-up No. 8 Chevrolet after being collected in an accident while leading Thursday’s Duel 150 qualifying race.
Keselowski, now an owner with the Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team, was fastest in the No. 6 Ford in Saturday’s final DAYTONA 500 practice.
“The DAYTONA 500, to me over the years, has probably been more focused on the speed of the cars and the willingness of the drivers to make bold moves,” Keselowski said. “I think, accordingly, I haven’t been able to close the 500 out. We’ve had really fast cars and caught some really poor breaks and then there have been some races where I felt like I didn’t execute at a high enough level. I think there’s probably a little mixture of all those things on why I haven’t been able to win this race.”
“It’s the last crown jewel I don’t have,” Keselowski added. “I’ve got the championship, the Brickyard [at Indianapolis] and the Southern 500 (at Darlington, S.C.) and the Bristol Night races and the Talladegas. Those mean the world to me, they really do, but the DAYTONA 500 is still the biggest race of the year no matter how you look at it and it still stings to not have it. It stings to have been so close in so many different ways.”
Zane Smith’s Winning Streak
Reigning NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series champion Zane Smith is enjoying a rarefied run of competition. He’s succeeding in everything he drives.
Smith, who won the Phoenix Truck Series season finale from pole position to claim his first big NASCAR title in November, started the 2023 year off co-driving to victory with NASCAR Cup Series’ driver Harrison Burton in the IMSA-sanctioned Michelin Pilot Challenge race on the Daytona International Speedway road course in January.
On Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, he raced to a top-10 finish in the Duel 150 qualifying race earning his first ever start DAYTONA 500 start on Sunday.
And on Friday night, Smith drove his No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford F150 to victory in the 2023 season-opening NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race – his second consecutive in the race.
“That was something we kind of joked about,” Smith said smiling. “I mean, really from the final half of the year last year and then rolling into this year, I just felt like we just had so much momentum.”
Smith conceded, it has been an incredible run to the biggest start of his career coming Sunday.
“In all honestly, yes, I’m nervous, but I’m just so ready for Sunday to be here,” Smith said. “Obviously [Thursday night] was a ton of fun getting into the 500. And that [Friday night] was a win for us with literally the same group on our truck, the same group we have on the Cup car.
“I’m so excited for Sunday,” he added. “It’s going to be such a cool experience, obviously with two of my really good friends that we grew up together in Noah [Gragson] and Riley [Herbst] and it’ll be awesome.”