The first DAYTONA 500 at Bill France Sr.’s newly constructed 2.5-mile trioval superspeedway took place on February 22, 1959. Famously, the race ended in a three-wide photo finish with Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp seemingly in a dead heat for the win. While the on-the-spot unofficial decision went to Beauchamp, after examining photos – including T. Taylor Warren’s signature image – NASCAR reversed the decision to give the victory to Petty by a margin of approximately two feet. Moving over the next six decades, we take a look at the other 57 years of DAYTONA 500 history.
In the 1970s, “The Great American Race” belonged to “The King,” Richard Petty; however, the decade began with a win by another Petty Enterprises’ driver, the race team owned by his father, Lee. Winged Plymouth Superbirds made their grand debut in 1970 and Lee Petty chose Pete Hamilton to drive his No. 40 Plymouth Superbird. Hamilton passed David Pearson for the lead with nine laps to go and beat him to the checkered flag by three car-lengths.
Richard Petty took control the following year, winning three of the next four DAYTONA 500s. By the end of 1974, Petty already had a record five DAYTONA 500 victories while no other driver had more than one.
In between Petty’s dominance, another all-time great managed to lift the Harley J. Earl DAYTONA 500 Trophy. A.J. Foyt won the 1972 DAYTONA 500 with Wood Brothers Racing in dominating fashion as he led 167 of 200 laps.
In 1975 it appeared David Pearson was on his way to his first career DAYTONA 500 victory; however, history repeated itself as he was once again passed late in a DAYTONA 500. After spinning out on Lap 197, Benny Parsons drafted from the lapped car of Richard Petty and, after leading just four laps, took the No. 72 Chevrolet to Victory Lane.
After several disappointing endings, David Pearson responded in 1976 with one of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history. In a last-lap battle with Richard Petty, the two crashed exiting Turn 4. Both cars came to a rest in the tri-oval grass, short of the finish line. Petty furiously tried to get his No. 43 to restart, but the damage was too severe. Ingeniously, Pearson dropped the clutch and kept the car in neutral, which kept it from stalling. He slowly crossed the finish line to capture a long-coveted DAYTONA 500 victory.
The following year, Cale Yarborough led 137 of 200 laps to take home the victory. The win put him in an elite class with Richard Petty as the only drivers to win multiple DAYTONA 500s. Notably, that same year Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in “The Great American Race,” finishing 12th.
Entering the 1978 DAYTONA 500 on an unprecedented 670 race winless streak, things didn’t look good for Bobby Allison when he qualified 33rd. However, with DAYTONA 500 mainstays Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip all out of the race, things started to look up. Allison took full advantage as he battled for the lead with Buddy Baker for the last 33 laps. The drivers exchanged the lead five times, but Allison wouldn’t look back after he passed Baker with 11 laps to go. Allison took full advantage as he battled back and forth for the lead with Buddy Baker for the last 33 laps. The drivers exchanged leads five times, but Allison ultimately took the lead for the final time when he passed Baker with 11 laps to go.
The 1970s ended with a bang as the 1979 DAYTONA 500 is considered by many to be the most important race in NASCAR history – NASCAR’s first race to be nationally broadcast flag-to-flag; this was the opportunity NASCAR was looking for in order to move into the mainstream.
The national broadcast, along with a snowstorm that blanketed much of the East Coast and provided a captive audience, set the stage for NASCAR’s formal introduction to the country.
The seminal moment came during the final lap of the 500-mile event as Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, jockeying for the lead position, crashed side-by-side into the Turn 3 wall. As their cars came to rest on the infield grass, a fistfight between Yarborough and Allison ensued with Donnie’s brother, Bobby, joining the fray. With camera crews on-hand, a national audience became transfixed by this candid last-lap moment.
The impact of the race on the American public cannot be underscored as it scored a then-record TV audience and put NASCAR front and center on newspapers throughout the country.
• The 1970s are the second consecutive decade in which Richard Petty led all drivers in victories
• The 1970s are the only decade in which nobody won the DAYTONA 500 from the pole position
• Richard Petty’s four DAYTONA 500 victories are the most for any driver, in any decade
• Richard Petty won the 1973 DAYTONA 500 by a record two laps
• Pete Hamilton became the first driver to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win at the DAYTONA 500
• Four times during the decade, the DAYTONA 500 champion went on the win the Sprint Cup Championship – the most of any decade
What was your favorite moment from the DAYTONA 500 during the 1970s? Let us know by leaving us a comment below! Be a part of the next chapter of history by attending the 59th running of the DAYTONA 500. Tickets are on sale now and going fast! Buy now or call 1-800-PITSHOP for tickets and information.