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.”

Seven Cup drivers entered in Xfinity race at Sonoma

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Kyle Larson is among seven Cup drivers entered in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

The race marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the California road course. Teams will get 50 minutes of practice Friday because this is a new event on the schedule. That additional time will give those Cup drivers more laps on the 1.99-mile road course.

MORE: Sonoma Xfinity entry list

Here is a look at what Xfinity rides the Cup drivers will pilot this weekend:

The race is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.

 

Winners and losers at WWT Raceway

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Winners and losers from Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

WINNERS

Kyle BuschWins the pole, leads the most laps and holds the field off over the last five restarts to win the race. He scored six playoff points, giving him 16 on the season, second only to William Byron’s 17. Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season for Richard Childress Racing. Busch’s three wins this year equals what JGR has done so far.

Ryan BlaneyHis sixth-place finish moved him into the points lead. He last led the points after the spring 2022 Richmond race. Blaney also won a stage Sunday to collect another playoff point. He has seven this season.

Kyle LarsonFourth-place finish was a big turnaround after struggles earlier in the race. It has not been easy for this team the last few weeks. He has three top-five finishes and four finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races.

Daniel SuarezHis seventh-place finish moved him up two spots to 16th in the standings, the final playoff transfer spot at this time.

LOSERS

Ross ChastainHe finished 22nd for his third consecutive result outside the top 20. He entered the weekend leading the points and fell to fifth afterward. He is 29 points behind new series leader Ryan Blaney with 11 races left in the regular season.

Tyler ReddickRebounded from an early spin to lead but had his race end after a brake rotor failed. He was one of four drivers eliminated by brake rotor failures. The others were Carson Hocevar, Bubba Wallace and Noah Gragson.

What drivers said at WWT Raceway

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Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

Kyle Busch — Winner: “Just the restarts kind of went our way. We were able to get through on the outside on that one and push (Kyle) Larson out, then he took bottom of (Turns) 3 and 4, I was able to carry the momentum around the high side to take the lead. That was really important. I think that was kind of the key moment of us being able to win today. Being able to control the rest of the restarts for the rest of the race. Kyle is one of the best. It’s good to be able to sit up here and race hard with him, being a Team Chevy partner. He gave me great respect, I appreciate that. That will be given back down the road.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I thought we were super dialed if it was 95 degrees like it was supposed to be with those delays – it kind of took away from the advantage I thought that we had. I’m proud of this whole Sport Clips Toyota team – pit crew did a phenomenal job keeping us in it and doing really good on the money stop with about 60 to go. We are going to have to wait another to get that 50th (win).”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I’m proud of the fight. We were mediocre – just outside the top five all day long. There was a group of cars that were a tick better than us. Then we executed at the end and beat a few of them. We tried some new things from last year, and we learned some lessons. But overall: Good. We needed a solid run. We’ve been going through hell here lately. So, it’s nice to get a top five, third place, and some points there in each stage. Good day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 4th: “Proud of the effort today. It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that. …  I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts, and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “Started off the race near the front and stayed there through Stage 1 and thought we could get a little bit better and maybe have a shot at the couple, three in front of us. We had a pit road penalty and had to go to the back, and it was just an uphill climb from there. Just really tough to get through the field. We got some damage from when someone’s brake rotor exploded, that slowed us down even more. Really with all we went through today, a top-five is a really good day for us. I’m proud of the effort.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 6th: “We ran pretty good today. Won the second stage which was good, second in the first stage. Just kind of lost track position, lost the lead. Through a couple stops and restarts, we could just never really get it back. I thought that (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) and I were similar. It was just a matter of who was out front. I just got a bad restart at the end and fell to sixth. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good points day too, and we’ll keep going.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 7th: “The entire weekend was very solid for us. We barely missed the second run in qualifying and really, we missed it because of me and not because of the car. The car was capable of advancing. In the race, the car was strong right away. It was fun today and we really needed this as a team. We needed a result that we deserved, and I felt like lately it’s been a little difficult on us when it comes to that. Today, I felt like we deserved a top-10 or top-five and we came home seventh, so we will take it.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 9th: “We kind of learned last year that track position is super important. Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, went all the way to the back and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there. So, we had to go for it again, put two on and just left two on. We never took four again. There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great FR8 Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could kind of hold our ground. Those last few cautions kind of hurt us a bit, but still came away with a Top-10. So, it was a good day.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “That was a long day – long race. There were a lot of cautions and red flags. It really started yesterday. I was in a little bit of a hole after qualifying, and I just didn’t do a good job. I had to dig out of that today. We had pretty good speed in our Fastenal Ford Mustang. I was pretty happy with it, and at times, had to move around the track quite a bit. I figured out Gateway really quickly. Not being able to run here last year, I felt a little behind getting going. Definitely found something there at the end. Honestly wish it was a 600-mile race because I felt like we could have kept getting better.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 13th: “Definitely frustrating having a speeding penalty … I’m a little frustrated with myself with that. You think something at the end of Stage 1 isn’t going to affect your race, but it just put us behind. We tried a bunch of strategy calls to get our Freightliner Ford Mustang up there. Had some good restarts at the end and made the most of it, I feel like. Those restarts got really scrappy. Proud of the team effort, proud of the recovery. Definitely a lot to clean up on my end to maximize what I thought was a Top-10 race car.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 14th: “We had an up-and-down day today fighting the balance in our No. 16 Chevy. I felt like we had a top-15 car most of the day, but we had to play defense to stay there. I wasn’t able to roll speed through the corner like I needed to be more aggressive and keep moving forward. We made a strategy call to take two tires, which didn’t work in our favor. Then we got caught up on pit road and restarted pretty far back at the beginning of the third stage. We’ll take a 14th- place finish after everything we battled with our car today and move forward to Sonoma.”

Justin Haley — Finished 16th: It was an up-and-down day for this No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection team. We fired off tight in traffic, and it was just hard to pass. My crew chief, Trent Owens, made some really good strategy calls and we had positive adjustments all day, despite a couple pit-road mishaps. We had another good Chevrolet hot rod, and we will take a 16th-place finish after a hard fought day.

Ryan Preece — Finished 17th: “That was a really long day. I fought a tight race car all day long and every time we came down pit road, my guys made really strong adjustments. It just wasn’t enough to get us to the front and stay there. There were so many cautions there at the end, I was just trying to save the car. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible day for us after qualifying 29th. The fans were out in full force today, too, that was awesome to see. We’ve just got to keep grinding for better finishes.”

Erik Jones — Finished 18th: “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Bommarito.com Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 19th: “We battled handing issues all day and just couldn’t find it. We were loose to start the day and it felt like our car was tight on aero and loose mechanically. Our long-run speed was really all we had today and we could pass cars late in the run, but we had so many cautions in the final stage we didn’t have the chance to run those cars down. Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) put me on offense on the last 20 laps with fresh tires and I thought we could’ve driven up to 15th, but someone missed a shift on the last restart and stacked us up and put us behind. Just one of those days. We had to battle to get all we could get.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 32nd: “We kept our track position just like we wanted to. We got stage points, and I felt like we had a top-eight or so car, which was a big difference from last year. Obviously we’re striving to be better everywhere. We had a really good streak going of really good runs. It looked like the No. 2 (Austin Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out, so that’s a bummer. We definitely had a top-10 car today.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 34th: “Our day kind of went bad early on, but our McDonald’s Camry was able to get through traffic pretty well, but as the track stated to cool off, it just started going away from us. It was starting to get frustrating out there for sure, to have a car that good, and it felt like it was just going away. I had a bad feeling that was coming soon. I was just getting ready to have to back off with how soft the brakes got, but I obviously should have been thinking about that a lap or two sooner.”

Carson Hocevar — Finished 36th: “I thought it was great. I had a blast. Just so thankful for the opportunity. I don’t have a job for next year. I know Al Niece and Cody Efaw wants me to run for them and I will forever run a race or however many. But man, I’m just so thankful that they gave me the opportunity – the opportunity to drive a Xfinity car and now driving a Cup car. I was running 16th.. just so surreal for the first time ever. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot for Schluter Systems, Celsius, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sparks and the No. 7 Chevy team. Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”

Cup results at WWT Raceway, driver points

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Kyle Busch scored his third Cup victory of the season, winning Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime.

Busch is tied with William Byron for most victories this season. Busch and Byron have combined to win three of the last six Cup points races (two by Busch and one by Byron).

MORE: Cup race results at WWT Raceway

MORE: Cup driver standings after WWT Raceway

Denny Hamlin finished second. Joey Logano placed third. Kyle Larson overcame struggles early in the race to finish fourth. Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney placed sixth and took the points lead from Ross Chastain, who placed 22nd. Chastain fell to fifth in the standings.