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A history of Daytona 500 three-peat attempts

Denny Hamlin’s bid for a history-making third straight Daytona 500 victory ended Sunday with a fifth-place finish in the 2021 running of The Great American Race. A dozen drivers have won the crown-jewel race more than once, and only four drivers have gone to the 500’s Victory Lane in back-to-back years.

Three consecutive? It’s a club so exclusive no one has joined it yet.

RELATED: Daytona 500 results

Luck or not, the record books have smiled on a quartet of drivers — Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Sterling Marlin and Hamlin — for consecutive Daytona 500 wins. Here’s a look back at the race’s repeaters and what happened in their three-peat attempts.

Richard Petty

1973: Stock-car racing’s “King” scored the fourth of his seven Daytona 500 triumphs, benefiting from quick service that put his No. 43 Dodge out front after his last pit stop. Buddy Baker had dominated by leading 156 of the 200 laps and was gaining on Petty after his final stop, but the engine in his Nord Krauskopf-owned No. 71 entry failed with six laps remaining. That cleared the way for Petty to win by two laps over runner-up Bobby Isaac. “It’s just a thrill to win it one time,” Petty told reporters. “But to win it four times is really unbelievable.”

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1974: Petty rallied after a blown tire with 50 miles remaining to post his fifth Daytona 500 triumph and the 155th Cup Series win of his career. The same tire fate fell on Donnie Allison, Petty’s prime challenger, but he was unable to recover as quickly and his No. 88 DiGard Racing Chevrolet wound up sixth, one lap down. The race was shortened by 20 laps because of the nation’s energy crisis. “Winning the first one was great. Winning the next three times was greater,” Petty said. “Five times is even greater.” Asked about what that left for the future, Petty quickly replied: “Coming back and winning the sixth one next year.”

1975: Petty led 51 of the 200 laps in his try at a triple play, but an overheating engine resulted in multiple pit stops and put him seventh at the finish, eight laps off the pace. That left the door open for Benny Parsons to drive from a 32nd starting position to his lone victory in the 500; he led the final three laps, pouncing after David Pearson’s spin from the lead. While Petty didn’t contend for the win, he played a role in the outcome. Parsons latched onto Petty’s car in an aerodynamic draft, allowing him to gain on Pearson in the closing laps. “Richard Petty was the answer to my prayers,” Parsons said.

Cale Yarborough

1983: Yarborough set a qualifying record (200.503 mph) in his first lap, but his No. 28 Chevrolet was totaled on Lap 2, forcing his Harry Ranier team to a reserve car. That back-up Pontiac proved to be a winner, as Yarborough zipped past Buddy Baker with a slingshot pass on the final lap, then held off Bill Elliott by five car lengths at the end. “That’s the way I had it planned,” said Yarborough, a three-time Cup Series champ. “This is just a game of checkers.”

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1984: Yarborough’s Daytona 500 repeat had a strikingly similar chain of events. The No. 28 was competitive again, leading a race-high 89 laps after starting from the pole position, but he again sprang from second place on the final lap, converting a slingshot move on the backstretch for the second straight year. This time, Darrell Waltrip was Yarborough’s foil, leading at the white flag but fading to third at the finish. “Darrell couldn’t have done anything,” Yarborough said. “He was a sitting duck. I would have hated to be in his place.”

1985: Bill Elliott’s show of historic speed in his No. 9 Ford proved to be too much as the Georgian sped to his first Daytona 500 crown. Yarborough started second and led 32 laps, but his engine expired after just 60 laps, leaving him to finish 36th in the 40-car field. “Boy, what a disappointment … what a way to go,” Yarborough told reporters. “Fall out when you are running for the lead. I thought I really had a shot at winning that third in a row. It’ll have to wait, either for me or for someone else now.”

Sterling Marlin

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1994: Marlin’s winless streak ended on NASCAR’s biggest stage, snapping a 278-race drought at the start of the season with a Daytona 500 victory. With a Runt Pittman-tuned engine under the hood of his No. 4 Morgan-McClure Chevrolet, Marlin led the final 21 laps and held off Ernie Irvan — the team’s former driver — by .19 seconds at the end. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction to win a race,” Marlin said. “I knew I could do it if I got with the right race team.”

1995: Marlin’s success with Morgan-McClure continued for another Daytona Speedweeks with a dominant day in the 500. The Tennessee driver led 105 of 200 laps and extended runner-up Dale Earnhardt’s dry spell in The Great American Race. “He’s won a lot of races, but he hasn’t won this one. He’s won seven championships, and I know he wants to win the Daytona 500. Maybe I’ll let him win one when I quit,” Marlin said with a grin.

1996: Marlin went from his best two Daytona 500 finishes to his worst, as engine failure abbreviated his Sunday outing to just 81 laps and left him 40th in the official rundown. Dale Jarrett drove his Robert Yates Racing No. 88 Ford to victory, but Marlin wasn’t around to contend for his third straight 500 triumph. “With this car, we either win, run second or we’d blow up somewhere,” Marlin said. “… That’s the same motor we won with here last year, but it didn’t quite make it this time.”

Denny Hamlin

Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images
Brian Lawdermilk | Getty Images

2019: Hamlin headed a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing to score his second Daytona 500 victory, fending off runner-up Kyle Busch and third-place teammate Erik Jones in an overtime finish. Hamlin dedicated the win to JGR’s J.D. Gibbs, who passed away earlier in the year. “It was just one of those days where I felt like it was meant to be,” said Hamlin, who led 30 of the 207 laps and ended his own 47-race drought in the Cup Series.

2020: The No. 11 Toyota emerged from a frantic overtime finish, edging Ryan Blaney at the checkered flag by less than a fender. Hamlin drove from third to first in the home stretch, capitalizing when Blaney tangled with leader Ryan Newman, who was seriously injured in the race-ending crash. “We’ve defied odds here in the last eight years or so in the Daytona 500, but just trust my instincts, and so far they’ve been good for me,” Hamlin said. “I can’t do it without the car.”

2021: Hamlin carried high hopes to claim a piece of history by landing on the winning end of the season opener yet again, leading a race-best 98 of 200 laps. But he was shuffled back after the last round of pit stops and unable to mount a victorious charge. Hamlin tiptoed through a final-lap crash that flared at the front of the pack, but a top-five result was the best he could muster. “We didn’t execute too good on pit road,” Hamlin lamented. “It was just like the (Duel qualifying race). We came out in front of everybody, and didn’t have any help to get up to speed. They all blew by us because they were single file, so it just took away the power that I got and that’s getting through traffic. The fact we came back to fifth there from 12th on the last couple of laps is pretty good. Dominant car.”