Geoff’s Journal: How hard is it to win the Daytona 500?

February 25, 2017

I won the Daytona 500 31 years ago, and hands down, it was one of the biggest and hardest accomplishments in my motorsports career. All of the pieces came together to make that race special for us in 1986.

I was in my third year at Hendrick Motorsports, and our team was getting better each season. Performance and the finishes were showing, and we were gelling as a team.

I was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, but I would drive down to the shop during the 1985/1986 off-season to help work on our cars, especially our Daytona car.

We had some aerodynamic advantages with the Monte Carlo’s slope back window and no restrictor plate being used at superspeedway races at the time.

We qualified second for the Daytona 500, ended up leading the most laps, and battling the late-Dale Earnhardt for the lead and win.

Our team had a great final pit stop and Earnhardt slid through his pit stall.

Earnhardt and I were eventually running one-two again as the laps were winding down. He was following right in my tracks.

I signaled for him to pass me so I could draft him and save my tires and fuel. He wouldn’t pass me.

With a few laps to go, I was still trying to be conservative with the tires when I noticed off of Turn 4 Earnhardt was slowing down and coming to pit road.

“He’s out of gas, he’s out of gas,” I yelled to my team over the radio.

I ended up drafting behind Benny Parsons for the last few laps, and ultimately won. There were tears in my eyes as I was coming for the checkered flag.

We were running in the top-five in the 1987 Daytona 500. We made a pit stop under caution towards the end of the race, and we knew it was going to be close on gas.

Another caution came out a few laps later, and I asked crew chief Gary Nelson if we needed to pit, and he said no. I was skeptical on staying out, knowing there were only a few of us on the lead lap, but Gary assured me there would be enough fuel to make it.

With about 10 laps to go, everyone started to pit, and he told me to start saving as everyone started to pit. It was going to be close.

I took the lead with nine laps to go, and as the laps counted down, we were running on fumes. I came across the line leading with three laps to go and I ran out of gas. We finished 14th that day.

We came that close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500.

I had some more close calls at Daytona after that, but even winning one is hard, and I’m grateful to have done so.

Denny Hamlin won the 500 in a photo finish last year and he’s had a strong speedweeks, including his win in the Duels.

I’m sure he has tremendous confidence in his team, equipment, you name it, to win back-to-back.

The media and fans are talking and weighing in if Hamlin will repeat, as they did with us, but as a driver, you don’t really feel the attention or added pressure because of it. We have a job to do and that is our focus.

I’m just thankful I had the right people and right team behind me to make the 1986 win possible. One win is pretty darn good.

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. IMAGE CREDITS: Dante Ricci and Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts; NASCAR Media Group
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