DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s been 23 years since Joe Gibbs celebrated a Daytona 500 victory. Standing in his way now is a lineup as formidable as Howie Long, Marcus Allen and the 1983 Raiders.
Gibbs has four strong chances Sunday to earn a second Daytona 500 victory, and his stable of Toyotas has been among the strongest cars during Speedweeks. The main competition comes from Daytona’s favorite son — two-time 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Denny Hamlin and reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch already have given Gibbs a pair of wins this week at Daytona International Speedway. But the three-time Super Bowl winning coach has had his heart broken nearly two dozen times since Dale Jarrett took Joe Gibbs Racing to victory lane at Daytona in 1993.
Gibbs isn’t used to losing — his only Super Bowl defeat was to the Raiders a decade before he won NASCAR’s version of the big game — and he has made it clear he wants a win in NASCAR’s season opener.
“There’s always pressure from Coach,” Carl Edwards said. “Coach wants to win everything.”
JGR’s lone defeat during Speedweeks came in the first qualifying race, with Earnhardt passing Hamlin with ease for the victory. Afterward, Earnhardt raved about his car — nicknamed “Amelia Earhart” because he feels unbeatable in that speedy Chevrolet. Amelia has won four of six races over 13 months and never finished lower than third.
“This car is something special,” Earnhardt said.
It’s often difficult to figure out who is the class of the field leading into the 500 because no one knows who may be playing it close to the vest. But JGR and Hendrick have the most speed, and proved it when rookie Chase Elliott put Jeff Gordon’s famed No. 24 Chevrolet on the pole next to Gibbs driver Kenseth.
Elliott, the 20-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, could have his hands full in his first 500. He raced against teammate Earnhardt in the qualifying event, and Earnhardt warned him to be selfish on the track.
“I told Chase on the starting grid, ‘I’m not going to be helping you. Don’t help me,’” Earnhardt said. “‘Don’t worry about where I’m at. If I’m behind you in one of the lines, don’t jump in thinking you’re trying to help me. Do everything you can to keep the lead. Don’t give the lead up no matter what.
“‘I’m going to do what I need to do for me. You do what you need to do for you. You just got to be selfish.’”
Elliott, part of a new youth group moving into NASCAR’s elite series, isn’t alone in having to prove his mettle during the biggest race of the year. Ryan Blaney has proven to be fearless in restrictor-plate races, but the 22-year-old had trouble getting other drivers to trust him enough to draft with him last fall at Talladega.
It was a struggle as well in Thursday’s qualifying race, when he came from a lap down in the Wood Brothers’ famed No. 21 Ford to finish third. But he’s a de facto teammate to Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, the defending Daytona 500 winner, and should the Fords figure out an effective game plan, they may be able to disrupt the Gibbs and Hendrick juggernaut.
Blaney knows he’ll have to prove himself lap after lap Sunday so someone will work with him in crunch time.
“If someone can get like a blowtorch, burn the yellow stripes off the bumper, that’s going to help,” Blaney said of the stripe on the back of his car that signifies his rookie status.
It wouldn’t be unheard of for Elliott or Blaney to earn an upset win. Trevor Bayne pulled it off driving for the Wood Brothers in 2011 in his Daytona 500 debut. But “The Great American Race” is no longer considered the wide-open shootout most everyone once considered the hectic pack race.
The best plate racers have separated themselves from the field, and those usual suspects are typically the ones in contention.
“At every other race track we go to, you’re single-minded, you’re selfish and you’re a jerk,” Earnhardt said. “You’re a jerk on restarts. You’re a jerk every time you’re battling for position. You’re not doing anybody any favors out there. You’re not trying to help anybody. That’s racing. That’s the way it’s always been, right?
“That’s why you see the same guys up there, because they understand the mentality. Different styles work. Denny and mine is real similar. He’s aggressive. Logano, he’s aggressive. But Kenseth does well, and he’s not quite as aggressive. He’s real smart. It’s a mentality, I guess, where you just have to be a selfish jerk.”
Hamlin understands that clearly and feels like not having won a Daytona 500 yet is a gaping hole in his resume. Same goes for teammate Busch, who has come up empty when he thought he had a winning car.
Busch has placed a special emphasis on this Daytona 500, though, because he missed the race a year ago. He broke his right leg and left foot in a crash the day before the 500 and missed 11 races. Still, he rallied to win his first Sprint Cup title in November and wants to open his title defense with a win for Gibbs.
Still, he refuses to go into Sunday thinking the famed track owes him anything.
“I don’t think you’re ever owed anything. I think certain things just come back through cycle,” Busch said. “There may be times where you’re at a race track, you’re horrible at it. … You come so close to winning a particular race, boom, it’s taken out from underneath you. A few years later, you win it.
“I think if I could end up in victory lane on Sunday, then I certainly think it would kind of come full circle essentially. I’d love to have that happen, but I’m not expecting anything from the race track or the racing gods to make that happen.”