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Daytona 500 has frustrated many of the most accomplished drivers

Nate Ryan harkens back to the first NASCAR race that was broadcast in full, and a snowstorm that created a captive audience for Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough's Daytona fight.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Seven of the most accomplished drivers in NASCAR history have raced a total of 165 times in the Daytona 500, easily their sport’s biggest race.

This is how many times those drivers won the 500: Zero.

Their names and their 500 starts: Terry Labonte (32), Mark Martin (29), Ricky Rudd (29), Rusty Wallace (23), Tony Stewart (17), Martin Truex Jr. (18) and Kyle Busch (17).

Labonte, Wallace, Stewart, Truex and Busch own Cup championships but no wins in a race that has defined much of NASCAR history. And Dale Earnhardt, one of the all-time best, needed 20 500s to win one.

What’s going on here?

“You have some guys who have never won this thing who are in the Hall of Fame and who are going to be in the Hall of Fame,” said Ryan Blaney, who is 0-for-8 with a pair of seconds in the 500. “It’s such a hard race to win. So many factors go into it, and it’s getting harder and harder to win. The cars are so similar now.

“Decades ago -- look at (Richard) Petty and (David) Pearson (in the 1976 500). Both wrecked. They had enough time to fire them up and finish (Pearson won) before third even came around. Now, since pack racing came to be really popular, it’s even harder to win. It’s so easy to get into a wreck and so hard to move. Look at Kyle Busch and Martin Truex. They’ve been champions of the sport and won tons of races and just haven’t won this one. That shows you how hard it is.”

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Kyle Busch has led 324 laps in the 500, giving him first place in a tough category (most laps led without winning). Recognized as one of the best drivers of his generation, Busch moves into a new season with a new team (Richard Childress Racing) and zero wins in the 500.

“I definitely think it’s circumstantial,” he said. “I think the whole thing kind of changed probably 2012-2013-ish where it just became a complete disaster and a total wreckfest at the end. Before that, I felt like there were times where there were some good races and some good racing. You had to be a fast car, you had to have a good handling car, and you had to put yourself in the right spot at times.

“I have been the one that just kind of waits and sees everything that is going to happen, and I try to go with 10 (laps) to go. But sometimes that’s too late, and I am not in the right spot at that point, so I kind of mess myself up.”

Busch’s point about wrecks in recent 500s rings true. Over the past six years, 29 cars – on average -- have been involved in accidents in the 500.

Denny Hamlin has won the 500 three times. He says success in the race is tied to survival.

“Just because a lot of times you don’t decide your own fate,” he said. “People talk about getting in a wreck here is a 50/50 chance. I think it is probably a little higher than that and most times you don’t create the wreck. You are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Truex experienced the roughest Daytona 500 “loss”. He was second to winner Hamlin in 2016 by .01 of a second, the closest finish in 500 history.

“It’s the experience and understanding the situations and if you get in them again maybe you make the right decisions or do things a little differently,” Truex said. “I don’t think too much of the past other than things I can take something from that will help.

“It’s so circumstantial based on where you’re at in the field and who’s around you and how your car is driving, etc. There’s a lot going on. You’re just trying to make the best decisions for yourself at all times. Can you make a move? Who’s with you? There are many things to think about.”

The failure of so many respected drivers in the 500 is underlined by the fact that the race victory list includes a driver (Derrike Cope) who won only one other Cup race and several drivers who won the 500 while racing part-time schedules. They include Junior Johnson, Tiny Lund, Mario Andretti, LeeRoy Yarbrough and A.J. Foyt. Of course, as Busch points out, the racing when those drivers won was much different, although it’s not wise to say winning then was easier.

“Everybody’s got a shot to win, and that brings along some optimism,” said Kyle Larson, 0-for-9 in the 500. “But I’ve also crashed a lot. I’m pretty optimistic that I’ll crash at some point. It’s definitely a unique style of racing and one that I haven’t quite figured out yet.

“I’ve had good (Daytona) races where I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got a handle on this,’ and then come back the next time and crash on like lap 20, and you’re like, ‘Okay, no I don’t.’ It’s unique. It’s hard to study for because it changes. Almost every time you go, you go back to a place where setups evolve, cars evolve, so it’s hard.”