DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rusty Wallace crossed the finish line, drove into the garage area and found his wife waiting.

It was unusual for her to be there. But this was a trip she had to make.

Wallace needed extra support after finishing 10th in the 2005 Daytona 500 — his 23rd and final attempt at winning NASCAR's premier race.

"I had one last shot to win the 500, and when I didn't get it done, it was probably the quietest time in my life," Wallace said. "It was definitely a disappointment in my life. It was a void. It was something I wish I could have said I had done."

He's not the only one to go his entire career without winning the big one.

Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin and many more have endured close calls, multi-car crashes, blown engines, broken parts, tire failure, pit-road problems and just about every other kind of turmoil imaginable at Daytona International Speedway.

They've run up front, spent entire races in the back of the pack, had early exits and podium finishes.

Heartache, headache and humbling experiences, these guys have felt it all. None has celebrated a Daytona 500 in Victory Lane.

The 50th running is scheduled for Sunday, and just like the previous ones, it will leave drivers shaking their heads and searching for answers.

For Martin, it's another chance to end two-plus decades of frustration.

Martin will make his 20th consecutive 500 start, his 24th overall. He has nine top-10s, including an oh-so-close, second-place finish a year ago.

Martin was leading with two laps to go and looked like he would hold off Kyle Busch for the win. But Busch started a wreck in the final turn, and Martin was left with no one to help push him to the finish line.

Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth teamed up on the outside, creating enough momentum for Harvick to edge Martin at the line.

Martin would have won the race had NASCAR officials waved the caution flag a few seconds earlier, while he was still out front. But it didn't happen and Martin didn't win — again.

"I'm very proud of what we did last year," Martin said. "I wish we would have won, but winning that race wouldn't change who I am and it really wouldn't change my world that much."

Some of his colleagues disagree.

"No matter what races come along and what tracks they build ... this is the Daytona 500," three-time winner Dale Jarrett said. "It's the biggest race, and it does more for you as far as your career than anything else that you can possibly do.

"It just opens up so many doors for you."

Only six previous winners will be in this year's 43-car field: Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip.

That leaves a lot of drivers still looking for their first win in NASCAR's most important race. They hope to avoid joining the likes of Martin, Wallace, Rudd and Labonte.

Wallace had 10 top-10 finishes in the 500, but never took the checkered flag before retiring in 2005. Rudd was winless in 29 starts in the 500, including last year when he started on the outside pole. Labonte tried 27 times.

Kyle Petty (0-for-26), Bobby Labonte (0-for-15), Jeff Burton (0-for-14), Joe Nemechek (0-for-13) and Jeremy Mayfield (0-for-13) also are in the hunt for their first Daytona 500 victory.

The race is about the only thing missing from two-time series champion Tony Stewart's resume.

"You can do a lot more things wrong than you can do right here, and that's because it's still restrictor-plate racing," said Stewart, winless in nine 500s. "You're dictated by what everybody else behind you does. That's the one frustrating part about it.

"But it's not just another race. It's the biggest race of the year. Everybody knows that. That's never changed."

That's what makes winning it so special.

"It's almost hard to put into words exactly how much it means," Jarrett said. "We have the most time to get ready for this race, so you know if you can come here and win, you've beaten the best of the best at their best. That's what really makes you feel proud."

Not everyone would trade it all for a 500 victory.

"To be able to win the 500 puts you in a league that's a unique fraternity," Burton said. "It doesn't make a career, but it certainly enhances it and makes it better.

"If you said to me you have to give back two trophies to get one Daytona 500, I wouldn't do it. I think the Daytona 500 is the biggest race of the year. I think it's extremely prestigious, and it's the race that everybody wants to win because of what it is. But I don't think you can just stand there and say, 'Hey, I've won the Daytona 500.' That's not enough."

His brother, Ward, might disagree. Ward Burton won the 2002 Daytona 500, clearly his biggest NASCAR accomplishment. Geoff Bodine (1986), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994, '95) and Michael Waltrip (2001, '03) are others who have done little else aside from winning the Daytona 500.

And everyone in the sport remembers Dale Earnhardt winning the big one in 1998, on his 20th try. Although he dominated the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway like no one else in his day, Earnhardt came up short so many times before finally getting that elusive win.

As Earnhardt drove slowly through pit road, crewmembers from just about every team and dozens of NASCAR officials lined up to congratulate him.

Wallace, meanwhile, was fifth — one of his many disappointments at Daytona.

"I'd trade four or five of those wins at Bristol for a Daytona 500 win, that's for sure," Wallace said. "It's such a big race."