Photo Credit: Lee Johnson Collection

By Zane Miller

Since the creation of the modern Speedweeks format in 1979, there has never been a driver to win all three of the major events of the NASCAR Cup Series’ opening calendar, those being the Busch Light Clash (at the time held at Daytona International Speedway), the Daytona 500 qualifying race, and, of course, the Daytona 500 itself. However, one driver has come closer than anyone else, coming up just one position short of pulling off the historical feat.

Starting his full-time Cup Series career in 1985, Ken Schrader didn’t waste much time making his mark on the circuit, taking home the Rookie of the Year title with a 16th-place points finish. Schrader would continue to improve slowly but steadily through the first handful of seasons in his career, claiming a 10th-place points finish in 1987 before having his breakout year in 1988. That season, Schrader took his first career win at Talladega Superspeedway to go along with four top-fives and 17 top-10s to finish fifth in points by season’s end. After already having proved he could get the job done on superspeedways, Schrader would have his skills in that area put to the ultimate test to start off the 1989 season.

Since the 1989 edition of the Clash was only 20 laps long, there isn’t much to say about it other than the fact that Schrader started from the pole and never really looked back from there. Although his teammate Darrell Waltrip held the lead briefly, Schrader took the lead back before the midway point and held off Davey Allison to complete the first step of the Daytona Triple challenge.

Up next, the Twin 125 qualifying race held to determine the starting lineup for the Daytona 500 would see Schrader already with a massive advantage, as he started from the pole yet again. With the race only being 50 laps, this track position would prove crucial, as Schrader held the lead for the opening laps before a hard crash by Greg Sacks brought out a caution. This prompted Schrader along with the rest of the field to go down pit road. The race resumed with Mark Martin leading the field, as Schrader fell to fifth during the pit stop shuffle. Undeterred, Schrader was able to draft his way to Martin right before another caution came out, this time involving over a dozen cars near the middle of the pack.

Although the red flag was waved as a result of the pileup, Schrader picked up right where he left off, this time sitting in third with Morgan Shepherd in the race lead. However, Shepherd would not even be able to enjoy the lead for a full lap as Schader got by both him and Martin shortly after the restart. The trip remained in a tight pack until five laps to go, when the group encountered lapped traffic. Schrader got through the slower cars much more efficiently than Shepherd and Martin, enabling him to stretch his lead out by several car lengths. Despite Shepherd and Martin drafting with each other, neither would be able to catch up to Schrader. With just one victory remaining to pull off the sweep, the driver of the #25 had led 81.4% of the total laps run.

Although the 1989 Daytona 500 saw Schrader start from the pole, he would not be able lead the opening laps, as outside front row starter Darrell Waltrip took the top spot on lap one. Schrader would eventually take the lead back after 10 laps had gone by in the event, however a caution would come out shortly after as Davey Allison flipped over after hitting a dirt embankment. As a side note, amazingly Allison would be able to continue in the race after replacing the windshield and would bring the car home in 25th place. As for Schrader, he would lose the lead on pit road, but would claw his way back to the front before the midway point of the race.

Though not quite as unchallenged as he had been in the first two races, Schrader had still put himself in a great position as the laps began to wind down. With 12 laps to go and after leading his 114th lap of the event, Schrader led second-place Dale Earnhardt down pit road for the final time, with both drivers unable to reach the end of the race on fuel. While Earnhardt won the battle off of pit road, Schrader wasted little time in getting back around him to lead the two-car tandem to the finish. However, the two remaining lead-lap cars who opted not to pit would prove to jeopardize Schrader’s Daytona 500 bid.

Now in the lead would be owner-driver Alan Kulwicki, who inherited the lead for the first time all afternoon following the pit stop. At this point in time, Kulwicki had a similar career trajectory to Schrader, as Kulwicki claimed the 1986 Rookie of the Year award and had slowly improved in his next two seasons, culminating in getting his first career win in 1988. While a Daytona 500 victory would have been the most memorable race win of his career, Kulwicki’s gas tank would not allow this to come to fruition. Kulwicki came down pit road with just five laps to go. With Schrader now moving up to the second spot, the final laps would be in the hands of Darrell Waltrip.

Competing in his 17th Daytona 500, Waltrip was no stranger to having spectacular runs in the Great American Race, as he finished runner-up to Richard Petty in 1979 as well as finishing third three years in a row from 1984 to 1986. However, Waltrip was still seeking his first-ever win in the race, with it being one of the only items the three-time series champion hadn’t yet accomplished. Running dangerously low on fuel, Waltrip had been able to conserve some gas by running behind Kulwicki for the bulk of the green flag run, though he would be largely on his own for the final stretch.

Despite having a commanding lead, Waltrip could only draft off of passing lapped traffic in an effort to get his car to the end. Not long after the white flag waved, Waltrip’s car began sputtering, but thanks to having such a large lead over his teammate he managed to coast his way through the final set of turns. At the end, it would be Waltrip picking up his first and only Daytona 500 win, while Schrader followed 7.64 seconds behind to claim the second position.

The 1989 run would be a career-best finish for Schrader at the Daytona 500, though he would also post solid runs in 1996 and 1998, finishing third and fourth respectively. Schrader went on to a lengthy career in NASCAR which technically continues to this day, as he made a brief ARCA appearance in 2023, though his final Cup Series start came in 2013. While not the only driver to win the first two season-opening events before finishing second at the Daytona 500 the same year, with Dale Earnhardt in 1993 and 1995 and Denny Hamlin in 2014 also doing so, neither of these drivers led nearly as much as Schrader did during his dominant run at Daytona Speedweeks in 1989.