Ricky Stenhouse Jr. became the latest surprise Daytona 500 winner in a series of upsets that made the outcome of NASCAR’s biggest race one of the most unpredictable parts of the Cup Series season.
Stenhouse triumphed Sunday at Daytona International Speedway for his third career win and first since 2017, when he won the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway and the summer race at Daytona.
And that makes him the most accomplished Daytona 500 winner since Denny Hamlin won his third Great American Race in 2020.
In the years since Hamlin’s victory, Michael McDowell has earned his one and only Cup Series victory at the 2021 Daytona 500, and 2022 rookie Austin Cindric has earned his first and only Cup Series victory so far this year. next.
The last three Daytona 500 winners have a total of five Cup Series victories in 835 combined starts at the sport’s highest level. The Daytona 500 hasn’t had a three-year run with winners this short on Cup Series victories since 1993-95 when Dale Jarrett and Sterling Marlin established their Cup Series careers.
In the mid-1990s, the Daytona 500s also featured as yet unproven winners in Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin
Jarrett eventually compiled a resume that included 32 Cup Series wins, three Daytona 500 victories and the 1999 series championship. All of this led to his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014, but his future was still quite uncertain. when he strapped into Joe Gibbs Racing’s #18 car to race the 1993 Daytona 500.
Former football coach Joe Gibbs had only started JGR a year earlier, and Jarrett had finished 19th in the 1992 points standings with just two top-five finishes. Jarrett had raced at the Cup Series level full-time since 1987, but his only victory came in 1991 when he drove the No. 21 car for Wood Brothers Racing at Michigan International Speedway.
Jarrett then edged out Dale Earnhardt in a famous finish with Jarrett’s father and Hall of Famer Ned in the broadcast booth calling the race for CBS. The younger Jarrett went on to win at least one race in each of the next 10 seasons.
Jarrett won the Daytona 500 again in 1996, but only after Marlin celebrated two Daytona 500 victories for his first two career Cup Series victories.
Marlin had been in the Cup Series for far longer than Jarrett before earning his first Daytona 500 victory. Marlin made his first Cup Series start in 1976 at the age of 19. He didn’t run his first full season until 1987, but went winless in his first seven full-time campaigns despite 33 top-five finishes, including eight second finishes.
Marlin then joined Morgan-McClure Motorsports for the 1994 season, and he immediately took the #4 car to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500 with a narrow win over Ernie Irvan. He took a pole at Phoenix Raceway in the penultimate race of the 1994 season, but did not visit Victory Lane again until the Cup Series returned to Daytona to start the 1995 season with the Daytona 500.
Marlin led a race-high 105 of the 200 laps and edged Earnhardt to become the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Cale Yarborough did so in 1983-84.
Marlin won twice more in the 1995 season and finished third in the final points standings. He didn’t experience the success of Jarrett later in his career, but he eventually won 10 career races. He also finished third in the 2001 standings and led the points standings with seven races to go in the 2002 season before a broken neck forced him to miss the remainder of the season.
Austin Cindric is the most likely recent Daytona 500 winner to appear regularly ahead
As for the current trio of Daytona 500 underdog winners, Cindric is probably the only one of the three who still has the potential to carve out a career similar to Jarrett or Marlin. Cindric is only 24, while McDowell is 38 and Stenhouse is 35.
Cindric also drives for a powerhouse Team Penske that won the Cup Series championship a year ago, while McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports and Stenhouse’s JTG Daugherty Racing have just six wins and three appearances in combined playoffs.
Another surprise winner in 2024 is also certainly a strong possibility, with the Cup Series field as equal as ever to Daytona-produced Next Gen pack cars and racing.
Parity was one of the main storylines of the 2023 season, and the Daytona 500 managed to adapt well to this framework, with the drivers capitalizing on one of the few opportunities in the calendar for the whole field to have a legitimate chance of winning the race.