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All races are created equal in the NASCAR Cup Series when it comes to setting the playoff field, but the Daytona 500 holds a special place on the schedule. It’s the first points race of the season, and legendary winners like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, and Jimmie Johnson have helped establish it as the sport’s premier event.

Here’s one thing Daytona isn’t: a springboard to the series championship.

‘JJ’ was the last driver to win the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR championship

Jimmie Johnson is interviewed in the garage during the NASCAR Garage 56 test at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 31, 2023. | James Gilbert/Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson is interviewed in the garage during the NASCAR Garage 56 test at Daytona International Speedway on Jan. 31, 2023. | James Gilbert/Getty Images

NASCAR began racing at Daytona International Speedway in 1959, and the 2023 event represents the 65th running of the Daytona 500. It wasn’t until 1982, however, that the sport moved the race to the start of the schedule, and Bobby Allison took advantage of it to score the second of his three career triumphs in what has come to be known as The Great American Race.

For that season and the next 14 after it, the start and finish of the season had different outcomes. In fact, from 1980 to 1996, the driver winning the Daytona 500 did not win the Cup Series championship. That’s been the longest dry spell in history but hardly an anomaly.

In fact, Jimmie Johnson is the only driver so far this century to have won the season-opening points race as well as the season championship in the same year. He did it both times that he won the 500, first in 2006 and again in 2013.

“JJ” is one of only two drivers to have pulled off the feat more than once.

Only five Daytona 500 winners have won the NASCAR title in the same year

The Petty family had a monopoly on the Daytona 500/NASCAR championship for nearly the first two decades.

Lee Petty captured both titles in 1959, the inaugural running of the 500. That was followed by son Richard Petty, the seven-time Cup Series champion, scoring the double in 1964, ’71, and ’74. Cale Yarborough did it in 1977, then Petty pulled off the feat for a fourth time two seasons later.

That was followed by the great dry spell. Jeff Gordon became the fourth driver to win both in 1997 when he won the first of his three Daytona 500 titles.

Finally, Jimmie Johnson did it in 2006 and ’13. It hasn’t happened since.

The season-opening race is no barometer for the season


Mario Andretti Only Won Once in NASCAR, but He Made It Count in the Daytona 500

The Daytona 500 counts no more or less than the other 25 regular-season races when it comes to setting the NASCAR Cup Series playoff field. It’s a virtually guaranteed ticket to the playoffs, but it doesn’t do much for momentum.

In more than six decades of racing, the Daytona 500 winner has gone on to win the season’s next race just four times: Cale Yarborough in 1977, Richard Petty in ’83, Jeff Gordon in’97, and Matt Kenseth in 2009.

Interestingly, there has been a strong recent trend developing. Not only are Daytona 500 winners not winning the season championship, but they’re also not winning races. Since 2008, six Daytona winners have failed to win again that season:

  • Ryan Newman, 2008
  • Trevor Bayne, 2011
  • Kurt Busch, 2017
  • Austin Dillon, 2018
  • Michael McDowell, 2021
  • Austin Cindric, 2022

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].