Without Daytona win, hole in careers

Despite their Cup titles, greats must cope with void

Auto Racing

February 16, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - They're a handful of veterans. Men with championships. Men with record-setting performances. Men with talent.

Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty.

They have three championships and 139 wins among them. But, as they line up for today's 45th annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, they are a combined 0-for-108.

"My heart goes out to those guys," said 1967 race winner Mario Andretti, one of just three drivers to win the 500 in his second try.

"But that's the great mystery of it and the unfair aspect. Drivers who have been competitive, been champions and who are certainly capable just didn't have that bit of luck. And it's so important. You can't call your career complete without it."

Someone will be lucky at the end of today's race and feel joy.

A year ago, it was Ward Burton, missing an accident by 6 inches, who came home the surprise winner in his No. 22 Dodge.

But during the offseason, he stunned many even more by saying he didn't understand the significance of the 500 the day he won it - "I was excited because I won, but it was just another race. It wasn't until three months later, after I'd experienced the media crush that I understood its importance."

Of course, Burton had won in only his eighth attempt. Men like the late seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip each waited two decades and had a different view. So does Labonte, who will compete in his 25th Daytona 500 today.

"I guarantee you if I win, I'll know how important it is. I'm a little ahead of Ward in that regard," said Labonte, a two-time Cup champion.

"And I guarantee you, if you could pick one race to win - I don't care if you're racing at Caraway Speedway [N.C.] - it's going to be the Daytona 500. It's the biggest race in stock cars. It's the one you want to win."

Certainly, most of the 43 men competing today know it will take something special to win.

"The one I came closest to winning was the one Derrike Cope won," said Labonte, recalling the 1990 race in which he finished second.

"I went into the corner [on the last lap] and saw the problem with Earnhardt's car and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And Derrike had run fast all day long, and he ran a great race and he won. I said, `I can't believe this. This guy has never finished in the Top 5 before and he's won the Daytona 500!'

"It didn't seem fair. There's Dale and I run all these 500s and neither one of us had won one at the time, you know. I thought ... `Why couldn't it have been me sitting second when all that happened?' "

The big favorite in today's race is Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr. The younger Earnhardt will be competing in only his fourth 500, but has a thorough understanding of how hard it is to win here and what it means if you do.

"I remember when Dad cut his tire and Cope won," said Dale Jr. "I remember how hard it was for Dad. I mean, it hurt. Those were tough, tough times. ... Going through that I realize how big this race is. But, it's weird for me because I've got a chance to win it so early and don't know what to think about that. To me, this race, you have to earn the chance to win this race."

And, yet, Dale Jr. doesn't want to look back in 15 years with regret.

"Hopefully, I'll win it and I won't have to worry about that," he said.

Wallace remembers his near-misses - 1998, when Earnhardt won under a caution flag with him on the No. 3's bumper. And 1999, when he had the best car he could imagine and, with 10 laps to go he and Jeff Gordon were side by side for the lead going toward the first turn and there, running slow on the bottom of the track, was Rudd.

"I lifted for safety's sake and Gordon got by me," Wallace said.

And Rudd has his own hard memories.

"This track has never been super kind to me," he said. "But when you look at the history of this place, it seems certain teams put out consistently strong efforts and others don't. I could never seem to get with one of those teams and when I had my own, I couldn't blow my whole season's budget on this one race."

He remembers one year though, 1984, when he had just signed with car owner Bud Moore, whose cars ran well on this 2.5-mile oval.

"It was my first day on the job," Rudd recalled. "I was racing in the Busch Clash and my car did the first backward flip anyone ever saw here. I was so beat up, I spent the night in the hospital, but I was back next day for practice.

"I drove down into the corner and I didn't see anything. Couldn't see anything. I thought, "I've got a brain injury!' "

But it wasn't a brain injury. His eyes were simply so swollen he couldn't see beyond the puffiness.

"So, for the 500, I taped my eyelids open with duct tape," said Rudd, who finished seventh that day. "I wasn't going to miss this race."

No one wants to miss this race, yet some who haven't won it try to brush it off, as if it doesn't really matter.

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