NASCAR: 10 Best Drivers Never To Win Daytona 500
The month of February in sports is unique as it begins with the Super Bowl and ends with NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.
Just like in the NFL, where greats like Dan Marino, Barry Sanders, and Tony Gonzalez never won a Super Bowl, some of the best drivers in NASCAR history never won the “Great American Race”.
So I came up with a list of who I think are the 10 best drivers to never win the Daytona 500.
The criteria for the list is that the driver has to be retired, so drivers like Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, did not qualify, and also had to have driven in the race at least five times unlike Hall-of-Famers like Herb Thomas and Tim Flock.
You think with that criteria that recently retired Carl Edwards would be included, but I omitted him because I believe he is going to come back to NASCAR at some point in his career.
With all that out of the way, here are, in my opinion, are the 10 greatest NASCAR drivers who never won the Daytona 500.
10. Ricky Rudd
“The Rooster” won 23 Cup races in his career, which included 16 consecutive years with at least one win, but never managed to find Victory Lane in Daytona.
Out of his record 902 Cup starts, 29 of them came in the 500, with Rudd’s best finish being 3rd in 1981.
However, his most memorable Daytona 500 performance came in 1984 when after a horrific crash in the Busch Clash(now Advance Auto Parts Clash), Rudd drove to a 7th-place finish despite driving with a face so swollen that he had used duct tape to open up his eyes so he could see.
9. Rex White
White had a relatively brief career(only nine years), but he managed to win 28 Cup races between 1959 and 1963, more than any other driver in that span and won the 1960 season championship.
But not one of those 28 career wins came in the Daytona 500 as White drove in the “Great American Race”only five times with his best finish being 7th in 1962.
8. Bobby Isaac
Though he started driving full-time in 1956, Isaac’s career did not take off until the late ‘60s when he hooked up with crew chief Harry Hyde(whose character Robert Duvall is based on in the movie Days of Thunder) where from 1967-72, Bobby won 36 races and 47 poles(compared to just one win and one pole with other teams) as well as the 1970 championship.
Isaac had some good runs in the 500 as he led 30 laps and finished 5th in 1970, then lead 37 laps to go with a 10th-place finish in 1971, then won the pole for the 1972 race, only to bow out after 19 laps due to a blown engine.
However, it was with owner Bud Moore that Isaac had his best finish in the Daytona 500 in 1973 as he finished 2nd, two laps behind winner Richard Petty, in what would be his next-to-last appearance in the 500.
7. Terry and Bobby Labonte
It’s a two-fer as the Labonte Brothers, who combined to win 43 races(Terry-22, Bobby-21) and three championships(Terry-1984 + 1996, Bobby-2000) never captured the checkered flag in the 500, but came close several times.
Terry finished 2nd three times (1986,1990,1997) with the closest call coming in 1990 when he finished 1 ½ car lengths behind winner Derrike Cope, who took the lead from Dale Earnhardt on the last lap when Earnhardt cut a tire on the backstretch.
Bobby’s closest call came in 1998 when he charged to 2nd place in the final laps of the race only to have a late-race crash on the next-to-last lap bring out a caution, allowing for Earnhardt to finally win the Daytona 500 after numerous heartbreaking defeats.
6. Joe Weatherly
Weatherly was one of the best drivers in NASCAR in the early ‘60s as he won back-to-back season championships in 1962 and 1963, and won 25 races as he led the circuit for most wins a season in 1961 and 1962 with nine wins in each of those two seasons.
It seemed only a matter of time before Weatherly would win the 500 as he had finished in the top-5 in three of the first four editions of the race, with his best finish being a 2nd-place finish in 1961.
Sadly, Weatherly would not get to etch his name among the greats to win the 500 as he was tragically killed in an accident at Riverside International Raceway on January 19, 1964.
5. Buck Baker
During the 1956 and 1957 seasons, there was no better driver in NASCAR than Baker as he won 24 races(he finished with a career 46 wins) and the season championship following both seasons.
Unfortunately when the Daytona International Speedway opened in 1959, Baker was past his prime as he never made it to victory lane in his six appearances in the 500, with his best finish being a measly 9th-place in 1961, his only top-10 finish in the Daytona 500.
However, Buck got to see his son, Buddy, win the Daytona 500 in 1980.
4. Ned Jarrett
“Gentlemen Ned” won 50 races and two season championships in his Cup career, but never won the biggest race in all of NASCAR.
His closest call came in 1963 when leading with eight laps to go was forced to relinquish the lead as he had to pit for fuel.
Ned ended up finishing in 3rd place, his best career finish in his seven Daytona 500 appearances, finishing in the top-10 six times.
Even though he never won the “Great American Race”, he was in the broadcast booth to call all three of his son, Dale’s victories, including the memorable 1993 race when he passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap.
3. Mark Martin
Regarded as the best driver to never win a championship as he finished 2nd five times(1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2009) and won 40 races in his career, Martin also never won NASCAR’s Super Bowl in 29 attempts, though some fans felt he was robbed in 2007.
On lap 176, Martin took the lead during a caution period and remained in the lead as the race went into overtime.
On the final lap, Martin was just a few feet ahead of Kevin Harvick when a multi-car crash behind Martin and Harvick broke out, which many felt was going to bring out the caution and freeze the field, giving Martin the win.
But NASCAR officials did not throw out the caution flag and Martin was nipped at the start-finish line by Harvick by two-hundredths of a second, the second closest finish in Daytona 500 history.
2. Rusty Wallace
Wallace is the winningest driver to never win the Daytona 500 in NASCAR history as he won 55 races in his Hall-of-Fame career as well as the 1989 season championship.
Rusty’s best finish in the 500 was 3rd in the infamous 2001 race where Dale Earnhardt was killed, but his chance was two years earlier where he led the most laps(107) only to be passed Jeff Gordon on a daredevil move with 11 laps to go and faded back to finish 8th.
With 49 career wins and three Cup championships, “Smoke” is the most accomplished driver in NASCAR history to never win the “Great American Race”.
Stewart came close on numerous occasions as he led the most laps in both 2004(97) and 2005(107), only to finish 2nd and 8th, respectively.
Stewart also had a great chance in 2007 as he was leading with 48 laps to go, until he got loose in Turn 4 and crashed, ending his bid for the win.
But Stewart’s most bitter defeat came one year later, when he was leading with one lap to go but got passed on the backstretch by the tandem of Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, allowing for Newman to win while Stewart to finish 3rd.
“Smoke” would never get that close again as his best finish in his last seven Daytona 500 appearances was 8th in 2009.
Stewart retired following the 2016 season, 2nd all-time on the wins list at Daytona with 19(7 Xfinity Series wins, 4 Coke Zero 400s, 3 Advance Auto Parts Clashes, 3 Can-Am Duels(Qualifying Races), and 2 IROC races).