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.”