Cain: Just as Earnhardt did before him, 'Smoke' wonders if this is the year Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live During the mid-1990s, it was almost a Daytona 500 rite of passage. Long before there were formal organized Media Days, sometime between pole qualifying day and the qualifying races the great Dale Earnhardt would saunter into the cramped and dated old Daytona International Speedway media center, bust a few chops and pat a couple reporters on the back as he navigated the tight quarters to take a seat -- often in a folding metal chair in the corner, summoning reporters to come over to him instead of vice versa. Sunglasses on, he'd lean back in his chair and, depending on his mood, smile or grimace. Sometimes he waited to be asked the perennial question: "When are you going to win the Daytona 500?" Other times he just cut to the chase himself. Some years he was philosophical, other times frustrated, always he was hopeful. He'd won every single other race at NASCAR's iconic track -- most of them multiple times including a mind-boggling 10 straight qualifying races (now known as the Budweiser Duels). Although Earnhardt clearly came to both expect and dread answering questions on why he, a seven-time champion and the sport's greatest active driver, hadn't won the sport's greatest race, he always acted like each year was going to be "the" year. And finally in 1998 it was. I never saw him more genuinely happy and exuberant -- The "Intimidator" sporting a grin so wide it seemed like his mustache might touch his earlobes. Twenty years later, it's a similar scene with another beloved champion, Tony Stewart. As Earnhardt did, Stewart has taught school on the Daytona high banks, hoisting trophies from sports car races to IROC races; after Daytona 500 qualifiers and summer night 400-milers. And like Earnhardt, it's obvious that the questions of whether he will ever win NASCAR's big one have understandably gotten stale and annoying to Stewart. The two greats -- one an inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame member, the other a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer -- are shining examples of one of the sport's most mystifying quagmires. It took Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup champion, 20 years of trying before he won the Daytona 500. In the meantime, Derrike Cope (1990) and Sterling Marlin (1994-95) scored their first career series wins in the Great American Race. Michael Waltrip notched his first Cup trophy in the 2001 Daytona 500 after more than 460 starts. And 20-year-old Trevor Bayne scored his first and only Cup win in the 2011 500. Yet former series champions Rusty Wallace -- a NASCAR Hall of Famer -- along with champion brothers Terry Labonte and Bobby Labonte are a combined 0-for-77 in the Daytona 500. Mark Martin, one of the sport's most successful drivers, is 0-for-29 in the race. And for the most part, these greats don't even have a lot of near-misses to ponder. Wallace's best finish was third in 2001. Martin won the pole in 2010, had a dramatic runner-up showing in 2007 and a third-place finish in 1995. Terry Labonte has a pair of second-place finishes a decade apart in 1986 and 1997. Bobby Labonte had a sole runner-up in 1998, one of only three top-10 finishes in 22 starts. As he has become accustomed to in recent years, Stewart -- mostly -- patiently answered the Daytona 500 questions again this month. He joked that he was willing to sacrifice a body part to celebrate in NASCAR's most iconic Victory Lane. He's analyzed and Monday morning quarterbacked the late lap moves that shoulda-woulda landed him there. Until Stewart finally kisses that Harley J. Earl trophy, his quest to win the Daytona 500 will be one of the most interesting and compelling subplots of the sport's biggest race. But his success in the 500 is not what defines Stewart as one of NASCAR's greatest champions. Instead, it's the dogged pursuit of that dream that inspires and captivates. Every year, win or lose. And as Earnhardt did each February for two decades, Stewart has every reason to believe that this is his year. "Not until the day that I don't run here anymore,'' Stewart said of abandoning hope of a Daytona 500 win. "Everybody has got a shot here, so it's just a matter of ‑‑ we've been in that position before. … At least that gives you confidence that you've got a shot. "If anybody looks at my career and says because I haven't won a Daytona 500 that I didn't have a good career, I'd want to say they really don't know what they're talking about." MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Rusty Wallace gets his 55th and final career victory at Martinsville Speedway on April 18, 2004 in the Advance Auto Parts 500.
NASCAR Hall of Famers think new format has been great, added excitement RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace each won championships at NASCAR's highest level under a season-long cumulative points system, years before the advent of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. This year's format is a drastic change from the system of their heyday, with eliminations, rewards for winning and consistency all part of the equation. Even though the current complexion of the Chase represents a dramatic shift, both retired drivers said they'd have welcomed a shot at the title under this year's revised rules. "I would've loved to have been a part of it," Jarrett said. "I think all your champions will tell you the reason they're champions is because of how they thrive and handle pressure-packed situations, and I think we're seeing exactly that. I get ramped up doing the telecasts so I can't imagine what it would've been like driving." The two NASCAR Hall of Famers swapped stories and offered their thoughts about the state of the sport in a rollicking half-hour news conference Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway , site of the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN). Both former drivers will share in calling the championship finale in their roles as TV analysts. Wallace and Jarrett each won one title in NASCAR's premier series a decade apart, with Wallace reigning in 1989 and Jarrett's crowning moment coming in 1999. For selfish reasons, Wallace said he would have preferred if the idea had been hatched for the new-look Chase during his racing career. "For me, they told me if we'd had this format while I was driving, I'd have won three championships with the amount of wins I've had," Wallace said. "So yeah, I like this a lot. I think it's an exciting series with what they're doing now." Wallace said several fellow members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame would have adapted well to the new format, reeling off the names of Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as drivers who relied on a healthy mix of winning plus consistency. Jarrett added the name of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Terry Labonte to the list, but went back even further to marvel at what Hall of Famers Fireball Roberts or Junior Johnson could have accomplished under Chase rules. "I think that it would've fit all different eras if we had this type of format in those times," Jarrett said. Both agreed that the new format has increased the intensity of the racing this season, some of which has spilled over to post-race confrontations. Jarrett said that some of those same issues cropped up during his driving days, but that the spotlight's glare wasn't as wide as today's, with social media and traditional media expanding the number of eyes focused on the sport. Wallace pointed to Ryan Newman brushing aside rookie Kyle Larson last weekend as an instance of the hard-edged racing that the new Chase format has created. While some of the extracurriculars go over the line and result in punishment, Wallace said there's still a balance in what qualifies as acceptable and what isn't. "It has changed a little bit, but I think the drivers being able to get out there and have a lot of contact and not being penalized for it is a good thing nowadays," Wallace said. "The fighting, the beating each other up -- I'm not a big fan of that. I do like controversy and I do like excitement, and I think that was OK to tolerate. Everybody's going to have a different approach." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
NASCAR Hall of Fame: Rusty Wallace
Although Rusty Wallace is most known for driving the No. 2 " Blue Deuce" for Penske Racing, his 1989 championship came with Blue Max Racing. He had 55 wins over his 25-year career and continues in the sport as a car owner and ESPN broadcaster.
Rusty Wallace believes that the Gen 6 car is good for race fans.
Rusty Wallace speaks about the 2013 season and the excitement of the Gen 6 car.
Greg Wallace and Jason Jarrett reflect on a childhood in racing
Rusty Wallace talks about the opportunity to climb back in the familiar No. 2 car during 2014 testing at Daytona this week.
Take a look back at Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip battle for the victory in the 1989 running of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race.