My first Daytona 500: Drivers share memories from a special day

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The Daytona 500 is a special day no matter how many times a driver has competed in NASCAR’s biggest race, but the first time often provides special memories.

NBC Sports asked a number of Cup drivers what they recalled of their first Daytona 500 experience. For some, it was the crowd and pageantry before the race, including driver intros. For others, it was what happened on the track. 

For one driver, it was the photo he took while leading the Daytona 500 in his first start in that race.

Here’s what drivers said about their first Daytona 500 experience:

Kyle Larson

“My first Daytona 500, I remember walking down the catwalk thingie for driver intros, which was really neat and the crowd was huge. The race went horrible for me. I hit the wall like Lap 2 and then had a rain delay and had to stay overnight and finish the race the next day, and I’m sure I ended up in another crash. I think I ended up in the 30s (38th in 2014 race). It was not a very good first Daytona 500 for me, but just getting to experience the driver intros and stuff for the first time was really cool.”

Michael McDowell

“The first Daytona 500 that I drove was exhilarating because I had to make the race. So the first 10 years of trying to race the Daytona 500 always required me to race my way in. We never had a locked in spot. So the first year, in 2010, I missed it. In 2011, I raced my way in. I think missing it and not being able to race and being close and not making it, made it really sweet when we did make it the following year. There used to be 50-60 cars down there for Daytona and it was a big deal to make the race.”

Ryan Blaney 

My first 500 it was 2015. I was driving for the Wood Brothers. Very special just to drive for the Wood Brothers and to make your debut in the Cup (Series) at the Daytona 500. We ended up blowing up toward the end of that race, which was unfortunate, so it was a little short of the end, but I had a blast just that whole week. I remember thinking, ‘Man, it’s cool that I’m able to do what dad did.’ Dad experienced the 500 many times. That whole week is insane and that race day morning leading up to the event is just nuts and to get to experience that first hand was pretty special.”

 Bubba Wallace

“My first Daytona 500 experience was one that I’ll never forget, finishing second in my first attempt. Just a whirlwind of a day and doing my best to not make a mistake, speeding on pit road and losing the draft. It all kind of stacked up on the final restart and we were able to finish second. Very special day for us. It’s a really tall task going back because to beat that day. You’ve got to win the Daytona 500, and we know how hard it is.”

Kyle Busch 

NASCAR - Nextel Cup - Daytona 500 - Qualifying - February 12, 2005
Kyle Busch at Daytona in 2005. (Photo by Kevin Kane/WireImage)

“My first Daytona 500 was 2005. I believe that was right in the timeframe in which they put the yellow/orangish blocks on the wall for like no pushing past this point or whatever, I don’t know. It was weird. One of the newspaper people gave me a camera, like a disposable camera to take around and take pictures of stuff to document your time there, so I took a picture next to one of those, so I remember that.

“Another thing I did was I took the camera in the car. So when I was leading my first laps in the Daytona 500 in my first Daytona 500, I pulled it out of the pocket and snapped the picture and put it back. I don’t really know if that picture ever got developed or not.

“Anyways, long story short. Jeff Gordon won, and I have no clue where I finished (38th).”

Chase Elliott

“My first one being a part of it was a lot going on. It was my first race in the 24 car. Jeff (Gordon) was stepping away and stepping into broadcasting, and we sat on the pole that week. It was a lot going on. Really enjoyed it. One of those moments that you’ll certainly never forget. Some of it was certainly overwhelming.

“It’s just one of those things you just have to experience to understand and figure out how to deal with it all. I feel like as time goes on, bigger moments like that have gotten easier to deal with and kind of be able to put things in their place and be able to prioritize and focus on the things that matter.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500
Ken Griffey Jr. waves the green flag as Chase Elliott leads the field to the green flag to start 2016 Daytona 500. (Photo by Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Alex Bowman

“My first Daytona 500 was 2014. It was my first Cup race. Really stressful weekend. Went down there not locked into the show, didn’t qualify with enough speed to lock in, so had to race our way into (through) the Duel. At the time you had to finish in the top 15 in the Duel to lock in and we finished 14th, so it was really close. Glad to be able to be in that race.

“I just remember walking out on the driver intro stage on Sunday and seeing so many people, more people than I had ever seen in my life. It’s such a huge event and glad to continue to be a part of it.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500
Chris Buescher‘s car in the 2016 Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Chris Buescher

“My first Daytona 500 (in 2016) I ended up probably like a lot of others, in the infield care center. We got right reared and hit head-on in Turn 1. To this day, it is probably one of the hardest hits I’ve ever taken. So not a lot of pleasant memories from the first one.

“I think that car went straight to the recycling yard. Somewhere I have a picture of it in a claw at a recycling yard, the whole thing just junk, complete junk.”

Justin Haley

“My first Daytona 500, it’s just something that I had never could have dreamed of. You’re in the biggest stock car race in the world first of all, and then personally my first 500, the President was there, President Trump, which was just a huge event. … I remember before the race, President Trump flew in and we all had to get searched by the Secret Service. We had to take our suits down because we were standing close to him. I don’t think that was a usual Daytona 500 operating procedure.

“The fact that the President at the time made it a lot more special for us. I’m not a very big political guy. It was cool to see that. To see the love for the sport, sold out grandstands, energy and just seeing and feeling the atmosphere of a sold out Daytona and then obviously going into the race as well. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen the line to the pits be that long.”

Denny Hamlin 

“My first Daytona 500 experience came in 2004, I came to the racetrack as a guest of Dale Jr.’s. We had just met online, racing. Not really sure why, but he invited me to come down and stay with him and his friends that weekend. He ended up winning the race. I’ll never forget going to Victory Lane and celebrating and taking the trophy. Took it from there to the golf cart, rode with him and the bus driver back. Carried it from the golf car to the bus, wondering if I would ever have my own.”

“My first experience as a driver came in 2006. I remember just being so nervous. That’s pretty much all you can say about it. I understood how big the event was and how special it was and for it to be my first official start in the Cup Series in my rookie season, there was a lot of pressure. This is how you start off the year. Do you start on a good note or bad? Honestly, I have no idea how my race went. I don’t remember anything about it. I don’t remember a whole lot other than the pre-race, just the excitement and the butterflies that I had.”

Kevin Harvick

“For me and my career, a lot of things were backward, happened the opposite of probably the way that they should. I ran my first season of Cup (in 2001), every race but the Daytona 500, because of Dale Earnhardt’s death and replacing Dale in the car and then coming back to the Daytona 500 in 2002 was probably one of the bigger moments in my career. … I think I wound up at the front of a 23-car pileup. It was definitely one of those moments where you wish you could have done a little bit differently and had the outcome be a little bit better.

“The Daytona 500 can get your emotions and take them and twist them upside down and make you just crazy and want to do things that you know you shouldn’t do and take risks that you know you shouldn’t take and aren’t going to work, but you’re going to do them anyway just because of it being the Daytona 500. Controlling those emotions and controlling those expectations and controlling the week really is important.”

2002 Daytona 500
Kevin Harvick takes the green flag next to pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson at the start of the 2002 Daytona 500. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Brad Keselowski

“I remember my first Daytona 500, specifically the sheer disappointment I had. Big race, big day. Great car. Started the race, ran maybe five laps, got a flat tire and wrecked (he finished 36th in 2010). That’s what I remember from my first Daytona 500.”

Daniel Suarez

“My very first Cup Series race ever was the Daytona 500 in 2017. Things got a little bit crazy that offseason (Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement that led to Suarez taking his ride), and I ended up racing the Cup Series in 2017 when things were not planned that way. I had never had a start in any Cup race before. It was very overwhelming. A lot of things were going on. It was good. I felt that it was a good start. Like I always say, the best is yet to come.”

Kurt Busch 

“I was just blown away by everything about Daytona (in 2000). Was in the Truck Series race the year before and to go there as a rookie in Cup and Sunday is the show. The pageantry, the feel of the energy of the fans and just the whole excitement leading up to it. I was so nervous and almost jumped into my car and turned right in Turn 1. It is pretty wild. It blows you away. Even though I’ve been a racer, there’s nothing that can you get ready for the 500.”

Martin Truex Jr.

“First Daytona 500 experience I had to qualify on the 150s at the Duels. I remember the pressure of feeling that. I was driving for DEI. They were superspeedway kings back in those days and we had our Busch team build the car. I just remember the pressure, feeling it before ether Duels. I think I was in the first one, if I remember right so you don’t really know exactly what you needed to do and I just tried to run up front. I think we ended up finishing fourth, so that was a big deal for us. It felt like a great sense of accomplishment.”

William Byron 

“It’s kind of a blur. I feel like I wrecked a lot. I think I crashed in the Duel and then we had a pretty good start to the race and then I had a few incidents in the race. I remember finishing the race and was kind of just happy about that, happy to finish the race, happy to see the checkered flag. The experience was just crazy, just the excitement around driver intros was really cool.”

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”