Skip to main content

The 10 Most Memorable Daytona 500s


10. 1959 — A Fitting Foundation

The inaugural Daytona 500 was one of the strangest. Lee Petty ended up winning in a literal photo finish — but the decision wasn’t made until three days later. Johnny Beauchamp was originally flagged the winner, but Petty protested the outcome and after a review of fan photographs, press pics and grainy black and white video that made the Zapruder film look like Avatar, Bill France Sr. gave the win to the patriarch of NASCAR’s most famous racing family. Petty and Beauchamp didn’t fare so well a couple of years later at Daytona. In the qualifying races for the 1961 event, both were involved in an accident that launched their cars out of the track in Turn 4 and seriously injuring Petty. While he entered only six more races, his win in the first 500 held at Daytona International Speedway was fitting.

by Vito Pugliese

9. 1988 — The Alabama Gang Takes Center Stage

In the 1980s, there were a number of second- and third-generation drivers coming along, destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Larry Pearson, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett were all making an effort to live up to the family name. One stood above the rest, though, evident that he would be something special – Davey Allison, son of Hall of Famer Bobby. Davey won two races in his rookie season of 1987 — something that just wasn’t done by rookies in those days. In ’88, his Robert Yates-powered Havoline Thunderbird hung tight with his father’s Miller High Life Buick in the 500, but didn’t quite have enough to challenge him at the end. It was Bobby’s third 500 win, but his final victory in what would be an abbreviated season, as he nearly lost his life in a crash at Pocono just four months later. Sadly, due to the accident, Bobby has no memory of one of the most endearing finishes in NASCAR history.

by Vito Pugliese

8. 1990 —Seagulls, Shrapnel … and who is Derrike Cope?

Is it still paranoia if they really are out to get you? Dale Earnhardt had to be thinking that as he ran over a piece of Ricky Rudd’s shattered bell housing entering Turn 3 while leading the final lap of the Daytona 500. Having just missed the 1989 Winston Cup by 12 points to Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt had the Harley J. Earle Trophy locked up, despite having nailed a seagull at 195 mph on the backstretch early in the race, which was captured and replayed throughout the afternoon. PETA is still probably pissed about that one. Earnhardt, though, would have to wait eight years until the bad luck would cease to claim the one prize that had eluded him. Derrike Cope, in Bob Whitcomb’s No. 10 Purolator Chevy, kept himself in a position to win and did just that after Earnhardt blew a right rear tire on the final lap. This finish even catches the smooth-as-silk Ned Jarrett a little off guard, as he gets a little tongue-tied calling the pass for win.

by Vito Pugliese

7. 1964 — All Hail the HEMI!

There are three names that Mopar freaks hold in high regard: Richard Petty, Dick Landy and Tom Hoover. Hoover is known as the Grandfather of the 426 Hemi, which made its NASCAR debut in 1964 at the Daytona 500. To say they had the field covered was a bit of an understatement. Paul Goldsmith won the pole at a speed of 174.91mph — on tires carved from granite. Richard Petty started alongside on the front row and dominated the action in his Plymouth Belvedere. There were only six lead changes between Petty, Goldsmith, A.J. Foyt and Bobby Isaac, with Petty leading from lap 52 to the finish. Petty by a lap over runner-up Jimmy Pardue and two laps over Goldsmith, but all three drove ’64 Plymouths powered by the new elephant motor. NASCAR would ban the engine for ’65, leading Petty to sit out for a season. Imagine the win and title total had he not.

by Vito Pugliese

6. 1981 – The King Wins on Strategy

You could draw some similarities between the 1981 and 2013 NASCAR seasons. The former year witnessed a new, downsized body … and no one really knew what to expect from it. The Daytona 500 was actually the second race of the year at this time (the now-defunct Riverside road course hosted the first event of the year). Bobby Allison dominated the 500, leading 117 of the 200 laps, while briefly exchanging the lead with Ricky Rudd and Neil Bonnett. Richard Petty wasn’t even a factor – until it counted. Coming onto pit road with 27 laps remaining, Petty’s cousin, Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, made the audible call for two tires. It got Petty out far enough in front that he and his STP Buick led the final 26 circuits — the only laps he’d lead all day — and cruised to Victory Lane for his seventh and final Daytona 500 victory.

by Vito Pugliese

5. 2007 — You Can Race Back to the Yellow … Starting Now

Back around the mid-late 2000’s, NASCAR attendance and ratings started to decline. It seemed the rules were constantly changing to fit the current circumstance, phantom yellows run amok, and a new points system was being rolled out every season. During the 2003 season, it was determined that there would no longer be racing back to the yellow flag when a caution came out. The field would be frozen and timing and scoring determined the winner. In his 23rd start, and first outside of the No. 6 Roush Ford since 1988, Mark Martin had things sewn up. He just had to make it through a Green White Checker restart, and he’d have quite the consolation prize for not having won a title in 20 years of trying. As the wreck starts, Martin has the lead over Harvick. He pulls down to avoid the side draft of Harvick, anticipating the yellow flag that never flew – despite cars being upside down, on fire, and flipping through the grass.

4. 1998 – “The Intimidator” Breaks Through

“After 20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500!” A simply great call by Mike Joy in what he deemed, “the most anticipated moment in racing.” That sentiment was verified as every crewman from every team lined pit road to congratulate Earnhardt upon taking checkers. In watching the replay, Bobby Labonte started to make it a little more close than I remember, and if he had another lap, could have made things really interesting. All through Speedweeks, the parallels were drawn between John Elway, who finally won his first Super Bowl nearly a month earlier after so many devastating – and lopsided – loses, and Earnhardt, who was still looking for that elusive 500 win. A year removed from ending up on his lid on the last lap, but getting back in to finish the race, Earnhardt showed up at Daytona with a renewed determination and a new crew chief, having lured Larry McReynolds away from Robert Yates Racing and Ford. The ’98 version of the Daytona 500 was one of those races where everything just came together, nothing bad happened, and the guy you expected to win actually did. 

by Vito Pugliese

3. 1976– Pearson Outfoxes Petty

It the mid- to late- '70s, the superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega were barnburners. You could count on one hand who was going to be factory: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough. The 1976 edition of the 500 was about as good as it gets, with Pearson and Petty sandbagging and sling-shotting during the final laps. The Silver Fox pulled a monster slide job going into Turn 3, but The King side-drafted through 4 and powered by on exit. Almost. As the two titans of the sport made contact and spun out of control, Pearson managed to kick in the clutch to keep the powerplant alive, while Petty’s went kaput. Pearson’s take? “The bitch wrecked me!” Note the wee Scott, three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart commentating. Perhaps Michael Schumacher would care to drop by the booth this weekend and offer his thoughts on the drivers “giving a maximum effort.”

by Vito Pugliese

2. 2001 – NASCAR’s Darkest Hour

The 2001 Daytona 500 should have been the greatest ever. It marked the first race of NASCAR’s new multi-billion dollar TV package, while the roof-wicker aero-package was about the best NASCAR had put together — and a seven-time champ was back in form after a few lean years, having pulled off the greatest come-from-behind win in series history at the fall Talladega race in 2000. Headed into the final lap, Dale Earnhardt was watching the two cars he owned – those of Michael Waltrip, his longtime friend who was determined he reach his potential, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. We all know how it ends — the significance of Waltrip’s first Cup win in 462 starts, the tears and concern of a brother, friend and former rival in the broadcast booth — so we’ll not belabor the point. But if there is one saving grace from this event, it has been the constant focus and improvement on safety within the sport.

by Vito Pugliese

1. 1979 – “The Great American Race” is Born

“There’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers over-flowing, they’re angry, they know they have lost…” No surprise here, as the 1979 installment tops any and all Daytona 500 lists. Those immortal words from Ken Squier cemented the key event in the history of NASCAR, thrusting it from underground regional spectacle into full-blown national consciousness. Amazing how one man and three cameras can cover a race better than the army of aerial drones and three different studios can today. Aided by a blizzard in the Northeast, a post-race fight and Richard Petty breaking through (ending a winless drought from injuries and the disaster that was the Dodge Magnum), the ’79 race put the Daytona 500 on the map as a major sporting event and, as Petty has said many times, “took us from the Sports page to the front page.” Looks like a certain brunette from Roscoe, Ill., did the same, once again, this past weekend.

by Vito Pugliese