Quite a bit can happen over the course of 58 years. Throw in an iconic race, a world-class venue, hundreds of legendary drivers, fabulous finishes, unique personalities and just a bit of good luck, and you get moments that truly stand the test of time.
These are some of the most significant – and memorable – moments in the history of “The Great American Race.”
Inaugural DAYTONA 500 Photo Finish
Nobody knew what to expect from the very first DAYTONA 500, which was held at the brand-new, state-of-the-art Daytona International Speedway. What they got was an appropriate beginning to what would become “The Great American Race.”
Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp crossed the finish line, seemingly simultaneously, with each driving to Gatorade Victory Lane to accept congratulations from onlookers. However, the on-the-spot unofficial decision went to Beauchamp, causing Petty to protest the result. After three days spent examining the photos, NASCAR reversed the decision, giving the victory to Petty by a margin of less than a yard.
Widely considered to be the greatest race finish in NASCAR history, the 1976 DAYTONA 500 showcased the fierce rivalry between two of racing’s most accomplished drivers – Richard Petty and David Pearson.
Pearson and Petty crashed battling for the lead coming out of Turn 4 on the last lap of the DAYTONA 500. When both cars came to a rest they had still not crossed the start/finish line. Petty’s car wouldn’t start but Pearson dumped the clutch and kept the car in neutral to slowly cross the checkered line to capture the only DAYTONA 500 victory of his career.
Yet another great moment that changed the trajectory of NASCAR from a regional sport to national phenomena took place in 1979.
Despite its humble beginnings, big strides were being made as the 21st annual DAYTONA 500 became the first NASCAR event to be broadcast live, flag-to-flag, with a national broadcast on CBS Sports. With millions of viewers snowed in on the East Coast the stage was set for NASCAR’s formal introduction to the country.
On the final lap, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed side-by-side into the Turn 3 wall while battling furiously for the lead. As their cars came to a rest on the infield grass, a fistfight between Yarborough and Allison ensued with camera crews on-hand to document the moment for the national audience.
Richard Petty ended up holding off Darrell Waltrip for his sixth DAYTONA 500 victory as a then-record TV audience put NASCAR front and center on newspapers throughout the country.
“The King” Wins His 7th
The seventh DAYTONA 500 victory for Richard Petty cemented his status as ”The King” with DAYTONA 500 victories in three different decades. The race was noteworthy for the strategy utilized by Petty’s crew chief Dale Inman. On Petty's final scheduled pit stop with 24 laps to go, Inman opted not to change his tires and only took on fuel, which allowed Petty to grab a lead he would not relinquish.
Allisons Finish 1-2
From the Frances to the Earnhardts to generations of fans, DAYTONA has always been a place that brings families together.
One of the most significant examples is the one-two finish of Bobby Allison and Davey Allison in the 1988 DAYTONA 500. Bobby and Davey battled each other on the final lap, with Davey trying to pass his father in Turns 3 and 4, but Bobby's experience won out and he beat Davey to the checkered flag.
The Ickey Shuffle
Darrell Waltrip pushed the limits of his car for his first DAYTONA 500 victory as he went the last 53 laps without a pit stop. Nearing an empty tank, Waltrip crossed the finish line an unbelievable 7.64 seconds before second-place finisher Ken Schrader. During the post-race celebration Waltrip is remembered for spiking his helmet and breaking into a rendition of the oft-imitated “Ickey Shuffle” the celebration dance made popular by Cincinnati Bengals star Ickey Woods.
The Dale and Dale Show
"The Great American Race" once again lived up to its billing in 1993 as the race’s final laps turned into a duel between the great Dale Earnhardt, gunning for his sixth Winston Cup title, and Dale Jarrett, a young driver with only one career victory. The final lap turned dramatic as Jarrett held off a hard inside pass from Earnhardt on Turn 4, while CBS turned to Ned Jarrett to call his son home. Audio of Ned’s call and images of Martha Jarrett’s disbelief are lasting memories of this thrilling race.
Dale Does It
For DAYTONA’s all-time winningest driver, there was only one race victory missing on his hall of fame résumé. Gatorade Victory Lane at the DAYTONA 500 was the only accolade that had eluded The Intimidator. After several close calls and bouts of bad luck, Earnhardt finally found redemption along the famous tri-oval in his 20th try.
Perhaps the most memorable moments came shortly following the race as, in a display unprecedented to this day, every member of every crew came out to the edge of pit lane to congratulate the legendary driver.
The DAYTONA 500's Youngest Champion
Proving that anything is possible at DAYTONA, Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner in race history at 20 years and one day. Racing for the iconic Wood Brothers, Bayne overcame a late charge by Carl Edwards to give the team its first trip to victory lane since 2001. Bayne’s victory at DAYTONA, in only his second Cup Series start, is widely considered to be the biggest upset in NASCAR history.
Hamlin Begins a New Era
Against the backdrop of the opening of the world’s only motorsports stadium, with a sold-out crowd looking on, Denny Hamlin earned his first DAYTONA 500 victory in the closest finish in the race's storied 58-year history. His No. 11 FedEx Toyota inched ahead of Martin Truex Jr.'s Furniture Row Toyota at the finish line for a door-to-door photo finish by one-hundredth of a second (0.010).
It was the first DAYTONA 500 victory for owner Joe Gibbs since Dale Jarrett’s victory in 1993. It also marked Toyota’s first DAYTONA 500 victory in its 10th year in the Cup Series.
Are there any more moments you think should be included? Let us know by leaving us a comment below!
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