The first DAYTONA 500 at Bill France Sr.’s newly constructed 2.5-mile tri-oval 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. Moving over the next six decades, we take a look at the other 59 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; Pete 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 1974, Petty already held a record five DAYTONA 500 victories while no other driver had more than one.
Even during Petty’s dominance, another all-time great managed to lift the Harley J. Earl DAYTONA 500 Trophy as A.J. Foyt led 167 of 200 laps to win the 1972 DAYTONA 500 with Wood Brothers Racing.
During an oil shortage in the early 1970’s, Petty won a shortened 1974 DAYTONA 500 in a race that featured an incredible 60 lead changes among 15 drivers, second most all-time.
In 1975 it appeared David Pearson was on his way to his first career DAYTONA 500 victory; however, history repeated itself as he was again passed late in a DAYTONA 500. After spinning out with three laps to go, Benny Parsons drafted from the lapped car of Richard Petty and took his No. 72 Chevrolet to Victory Lane.
After several close calls, 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. 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 rolled across 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 at the time.
Entering on an unprecedented 670 race winless streak, things didn’t look good for Bobby Allison when he qualified 33rd for the 1978 DAYTONA 500. However, with mainstays Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip all out of the race, Allison took full advantage as he battled Buddy Baker for the checkered flag. The drivers exchanged the lead five times in the final 33 laps, but Allison passed Baker with 11 laps to go and claimed the victory.
The 1970s ended with a bang as the 1979 DAYTONA 500 – considered by many to be the most important race in NASCAR history – was NASCAR’s first race to be nationally broadcast flag-to-flag; this was the opportunity NASCAR had been looking for to move into the national consciousness.
The 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 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 along with Donnie’s brother, Bobby. 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 overstated as it scored a then-record TV audience and put NASCAR front and center on newspapers throughout the country as Richard Petty claimed his sixth career win in “The Great American Race.”
Most Victories – 1970s
4 (’71, ‘73, ’74, ’79) – Richard Petty
• The 1970s are the second consecutive decade in which Richard Petty led all drivers in victories.
• Richard Petty’s four DAYTONA 500 victories are the most for any driver, in any decade.
• The 1970s are the only decade in which nobody won the DAYTONA 500 from the pole position.
• Richard Petty won the 1973 DAYTONA 500 by a record two laps.
• In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in “The Great American Race,” finishing 12th.
• Pete Hamilton became the first driver to capture his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at the DAYTONA 500.
• Four times during the decade, the DAYTONA 500 champion went on the win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship – the most of any decade.
Be a part of the next chapter of history by attending the 60th running of the DAYTONA 500. Tickets are on sale now and going fast! Buy now or call 1-800-PITSHOP for tickets and information.
What was your favorite moment from the DAYTONA 500 during the 1970s? Let us know by leaving us a comment below!