Martin and Wallace take last shot at 500 win

Martin and Wallace take last shot at 500 win

A stock car racer's to-do list is usually pretty short. By the time they decide to hang up their helmet and call it a career, most would be satisfied with a short list of accomplishments. Win a championship. Win the Daytona 500. Win it...

A stock car racer's to-do list is usually pretty short.

By the time they decide to hang up their helmet and call it a career, most would be satisfied with a short list of accomplishments. Win a championship. Win the Daytona 500. Win it again.

Of course there are other trophies that drivers want to win. Indianapolis. The Coca-Cola 600. The Southern 500. But nothing else in NASCAR carries the immediate respect of a Harley J. Earl in the trophy case.

For two of NASCAR's modern pioneers, Sunday will be their last chance at the prized possession.

Rusty Wallace.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace both made their Daytona 500 debut in 1982, but 23 years and a combined 42 starts in the Great American Race have left nothing but heartbreak for the two veterans.

Martin and Wallace have both announced that 2005 will be their final season in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup and their last shot at winning the most famous race in NASCAR.

"I want to win the damn thing. That's my goal," says Wallace, who has 55 wins in NASCAR's top series, but has never taken the checkered flag in 43 points races at DIS. He won the Bud Shootout in 1998, but his best finish in the 500 was third in 2001. "I got close many, many times. I'd love to go into my final year knowing I've got a 500 (win) under my belt."

Martin also has a Bud Shootout win (in 1999), but has been shutout from Victory Lane in 39 Daytona races, including 20 500's where his best finish was third in 1995.

Mark Martin.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

"I would like to say it really doesn't exist on that list, but, let's face it...that was what I wanted to accomplish by the time I was 25," Martin admitted. "I've been fortunate enough to win more than one race and I didn't get to choose which ones they were. Doggone it, I wish I could have but I didn't."

Both drivers plead that they don't need a Daytona 500 win to make their careers complete - "I don't feel any pressure because it won't make or break my career," Martin says - but Wallace admits that a Daytona 500 trophy would be the icing on the cake of a Hall of Fame career.

"That would be a special feeling," said Wallace the 1989 series champion. "What would be my ultimate thing this year would be to win the 500 and win the final race at Homestead. That would be pretty hot if I could pull it off."

Wallace and Martin aren't the only drivers that have had trouble finding victory lane at DIS. Terry Labonte, who is running a limited schedule this year and next before driving off into the sunset has finished second three times in 26 tries at the Daytona 500, but won't attempt to make the field this year. Current drivers Ricky Rudd (0-for-27), Kyle Petty (0-for-23) and Ken Schrader (0-for-20) are also looking for their first win at the 45-year-old super speedway.

It took 17 years for Darrell Waltrip to win his first Daytona 500 and Dale Earnhardt Sr. competed for two decades before he finally claimed his first and only Daytona 500 win in 1998. Dave Marcis holds the all-time record of 67 Daytona starts, including 33 in the 500, without a win. The history is not lost on Wallace.

"I think about that when I'm quiet," Wallace admitted. "When I go to the track I (don't) even think that. I'm just thinking get that old hot rod running fast because I don't' want to come down here and look stupid in the Daytona 500."

Despite their pending retirement, Martin and Wallace aren't quite ready for the nursing home and are both considered legitimate shots to win the season-opener. Martin picked up a win and 10 top-5's last season and finished fourth in the point standings and Wallace still scares his friends - let alone the people in his Penske Racing shop - with his intense will to win.

Martin has finished sixth or better in four of the past five Daytona 500s and had a strong car one year ago but saw his chance of finally winning the big race go up in smoke when his engine expired seven laps into the race.

"That was one of the few 500's that I was going to be able to really be a contender to win," Martin said. "I can't predict if we can replicate that. That takes a lot of special circumstances. I don't know how big other people's engines are going to be this year. I don't know how sorry their cars are going to handle. I don't know. That was a magical year."

It's hard to image the NEXTEL Cup Series without Martin or Wallace, who have combined to pile up nearly $90 million in winnings during the past quarter century. Even though they try to make us believe that a win isn't that important to their careers, Wallace and Martin will clearly be the sentimental favorites to finally end the drought on Sunday.

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Darrell Waltrip , Terry Labonte , Rusty Wallace , Kyle Petty , Ken Schrader , Dave Marcis , Eric Gilbert , Mark Martin
Teams Team Penske