NASCAR’S biggest losers hopeful of major upset at Daytona 500

  • By DAN GELSTON
  • Thursday, February 18, 2016 1:00am
  • News

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 1962 New York Mets, the mid-70s Tampa Bay Bucs and the current Philadelphia 76ers have nothing on Casey Mears.

The nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears, Casey has a tortured losing streak that is closing in on 300 races. His chances of winning the Daytona 500 on Sunday are about as slim as the gap between cars in bumper-to-bumper pack racing.

“I don’t like the stat that I have, the longest-running winless streak,” Mears said. “But I think a lot of those things drive you to push and work hard now to try to end that.”

Don’t worry Mears, you actually don’t have the longest streak.

According to STATS LLC, the longest active losing streaks in the Sprint Cup series by drivers attempting this year’s Daytona 500 are held by:

Bobby Labonte, 395 races.

David Gilliland, 330 races.

Mears, 296 races.

Reed Sorenson, 234 races.

Michael Waltrip, 218 races.

Those are just a few of the of forlorn drivers who will trudge into “The Great American Race” without much expectation of pulling off The Big One and adding to the short list of upsets at Daytona International Speedway.

With few exceptions, the majority of the long shots are on the wrong side of NASCAR’s power structure. They drive low-funded cars with inferior equipment and have inexperienced crews that put them in the hole before the green flag even drops.

The days of an underdog like Alan Kulwicki scratching together the resources to win a championship, much less multiple races, are over. Cars owned by Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Joe Gibbs won 35 of the 36 Cup points races last season. Martin Truex Jr. was the lone outlier, winning once for Furniture Row Racing.

For some drivers, the thought of starting the engine knowing there was no chance of catching Jimmie and Junior — or even winless Danica — was a blow to their pride.

Justin Allgaier went 0 for 75 in three years at the Cup level before dropping to the second-tier Xfinity Series.

“I saw a side of myself that I didn’t necessarily like,” he said. “I started doing some things with the way I approached the track, and I didn’t like the way I was doing that. I’ve struggled to understand why it works the way it works with myself.”

Greg Biffle was once one of NASCAR’s regular winners, getting to victory lane six times in 2005 and finishing fifth in the standings in 2012. He’s coming off back-to-back winless seasons for the first time in his Cup career.

“Last year, unfortunately, we knew that next month we weren’t going to show up to the race track and win,” he said. “We didn’t have the cars to do it.”

Mired in mediocrity, Biffle’s team underwent a major offseason overhaul that included a new crew chief to try and rediscover his winning ways.

Mears has watched Germain Racing morph through the years into a potentially competitive team and he flashed some speed in Daytona qualifying. He had heavyweight ownership behind him early in his career before he bounced around with the have-nots. He failed to qualify for the 2010 Daytona 500 driving for a start-and-park team.

The start-and-park teams were NASCAR’s equivalent of tanking, fielding a noncompetitive car in hopes of guaranteed cash and little risk of destroying parts. With a new charter system in place, that ignominious era of early exits has largely been drummed out of the series.

“It’s the worst thing you’ve ever done as a competitor,” Mears said. “I don’t know how you do it, but you have to because you want to continue to be in the sport.”

But much like that 2-15 matchup in the NCAA Tournament, there is still a glimmer that — on any given Sunday at Daytona — there is hope.

Waltrip went 462 races without a victory before winning the 2001 Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne, driving in this year’s field, pulled one of NASCAR’s biggest stunners at Daytona in 2011. Derrike Cope — who? — won the 1990 Daytona 500.

They all have more Daytona 500 victories than three-time series champion Tony Stewart. Dale Earnhardt won just once before he died in the 2001 race.

But Daytona is largely a race for the big boys. There are nine former winners in the 40-car field.

“I used to say it’s a crapshoot. It just isn’t,” Sprint Unlimited winner Denny Hamlin said. “The same guys don’t win all the time if it’s a crapshoot. I think that guys like Dale Junior that continually put themselves up at the front when it counts at these superspeedway races, it’s because he knows something that the rest of the field does not. Those are the guys that you need to look at and figure out how you can get better to get to their level.”

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