Daytona 500 has extra significance for trio of veterans

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It’s a short offseason, but even just a couple of long, dark, cold months without NASCAR leaves me pining for a trip to Daytona Beach, Florida. Living in Connecticut, I’d be up for a trip to Daytona Beach in mid-February regardless of NASCAR. But, it’s better with NASCAR!

Unlike nearly every other sport, NASCAR starts its season with its crown jewel event — the Daytona 500. The prestige of winning this race is right up there with winning a championship, or an Indianapolis 500, or a Monaco Grand Prix, or a Pulitzer Prize for best NASCAR columnist (I’ll wait).

But for a trio of drivers, a victory on Sunday would make a little extra history.

Denny Hamlin goes for a third

Hamlin looked impressive last Sunday pushing his teammate, Erik Jones, to a win in the Busch Clash, despite getting damage from a previous wreck and running a lap down.

The defending Daytona 500 champion will try to make it a third 500 victory in the past five years. If he’s able to go back-to-back, he’ll become just the third driver to do that, and the first since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95. The others are Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Richard Petty (1973-74).

Hamlin could become just the second driver to win three Daytona 500s in a five-year span. The other is the aforementioned racing king, Richard Petty, who won three in a four-year span from 1971 to ’74.

Hamlin has already been part of a record-tying achievement at Daytona. Last year, Hamlin led a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing (one of four such finishes for JGR last year), with Kyle Busch second and Jones third. The only other team to have a 1-2-3 finish at Daytona was Hendrick Motorsports in 1997, with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven doing it in the 500.

Kyle Busch still needs to check a box

Last year, Busch won his second career championship, moving from an elite list of drivers to win a Cup Series championship onto an even more select list of multi-time champions.

This year, Busch will try to become the first reigning Cup Series champion to win the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett did it in 2000. Gordon (1999), Yarborough (1977), Richard Petty (1973) and Lee Petty (1959) are the only others.

Like just about every driver in recent memory who has run a lot of Daytona 500s, Busch has several DNFs on his résumé, but he was a runner-up last year, finished third in 2016 and has led 282 laps in the Daytona 500, including more than 80 in both 2008 and 2009.

That’s already the 13th-most laps led in Daytona 500 history, and the second-most among drivers to never win the Great American Race. A former Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Tony Stewart, led 299, but could never win the race in 17 attempts.

We’re not in the Dale Earnhardt territory of “nearly won it so many times but had so many bad breaks,” but Busch is in the discussion of most-accomplished drivers to never win one.

The next-most laps led among active drivers without a 500 victory belongs to Ryan Blaney. In just five Daytona 500 starts, he has led 133 laps, the sixth-most all-time among drivers without a 500 win.

Jimmie Johnson gets one more chance

NASCAR retirements are what they are. You might be done with full-time racing, but still run a race here or there, or go the Mark Martin route and return for another go at it.

But 2020 seems to be the last season for Jimmie Johnson, and this could be his last Daytona 500 start. If so, it’s his last chance for a third Daytona 500 victory, which would make him just the sixth driver to hit that milestone.

He would also tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth on the all-time wins list with 84.

It would also snap Johnson’s 95-race winless streak, easily the longest of his Cup career. He would be the ninth driver to snap a winless streak of 90-plus races at Daytona, but just the second of those who had previously won a race.

He would join Jamie McMurray, who snapped a 165-race winless streak when he won the July race at Daytona in 2007. The longest drought between victories snapped in a Daytona 500 belongs to Ryan Newman, who broke an 81-race drought when he won it in 2008.

Three drivers broke winless streaks longer than Johnson’s to win a Daytona 500 for their first victories: Michael Waltrip in 2001 (463rd start), Sterling Marlin in 1994 (279th start) and Tiny Lund in 1963 (133rd start).

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