MONTE DUTTON – THAT CROWN MEANS NOTHING
Martin Truex Jr., Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, has never won the Daytona 500.
He came close two years ago, trailing Denny Hamlin across the line by inches. A lot has happened since then. No one has had a breakout like Hamlin's in 2017 since Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon.
This year's 500 will mark Truex's 442nd Cup start. In the 36 he made last year, he collected 55.3 percent (8) of his victories, 34.2 percent (2,253) of his laps led, 28.4 percent (19) of his top-five finishes, 20 percent (3) of his poles and 16.3 percent (26) of his top 10s, all in 8.2 percent of his races.
If his No. 78 Toyota roars down to the line, side-by-side with a rival, in the sport's most prestigious race, it will seem more familiar. It will seem as if it is his rightful place. It will seem as if he is supposed to win it.
"No question about that," Hamlin said this week. "If you’re fortunate enough to be a final-four driver at Homestead, there’s a great deal of pressure in the one race takes all. Trust me, that is pressure. Then you turn around three months later, and you’re at the biggest race of the year. Crazy how it works, but these big moments are what we all live for."
That NASCAR holds its most famous event to begin the season perplexes fans of other sports. There is, however, a time-honored method to the madness. All the teams are at their peak. They have stockpiled their equipment and resources. If the Daytona 500 is a disaster, they have 25 more races to get their playoff houses in order.
"We come here and go for the win and not worry about points, don’t worry about stage points and stage wins," Truex said. "We just come here to win. We have 35 races (including the playoffs) remaining after Daytona to figure it out and make up the points. This race is all about winning."
The Daytona 500 has been referred to as The Great American Race since Ken Squier popularized the term on radio and TV. As such, it is also the most democratic. Most of the 40 cars in the field will theoretically have a chance, thanks to the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates and the ever-changing nuances of the draft.
Two years ago notwithstanding, Truex said, "I feel like I am always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve been able to put myself in position to have a shot at winning a few of them but haven’t been able to get it done yet.
"It’s a little frustrating, but we’re still learning ways as a team to make moves better and to position ourselves in front of the field and stay there. I don’t know if we quite figured it out yet. ... One good thing about these (plate) races is anybody has a shot to win. You just have to put yourself in position. It seems like there are always a few guys who are really fast and who are capable of really making big moves and setting the tone. However, there are still opportunities for teams that are a little off on speed to make something happen, as well."
The reigning king is in the unusual position of competing for the most democratic race. That crown means nothing on Sunday.