Daytona: Through The Years
After racing on the beach at Daytona through the 1950's, NASCAR made it's debut at the new Daytona International Speedway for the inaugural running of the Daytona 500. That first race produced a very unusual ending. Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty both were side by side with lapped car Joe Weatherly at the finish. Beauchamp was named the winner, but after looking at photographs, Petty was declared the winner three days after the race. While the finish was a bit odd, it was the start of what is now, one of the biggest events in American sports.
Junior Johnson claimed the first win of the 1960's. Richard Petty was the only two time winner of the decade, taking the victory in both 1964 and 1966. Marvin Panch won in 1961, "Fireball" Roberts in 1962, "Tiny" Lund in 1963, Fred Lorenzen in 1965. Indy Car legend Mario Andretti added a Daytona 500 win to his great career in 1967. Cale Yarborough won his first of four Daytona 500's in 1968. Lee Roy Yarborough closed the decade by winning the 1969 race.
The 1970's at Daytona started with Pete Hamilton taking the checkered flag. Another Indy Car legend, AJ, Foyt, won in 1972. Benny Parsons won in 1975. Cale Yarborough took his second Daytona 500 in 1977. Bobby Allison won his first of three Daytona 500's in 1978. The decade saw two of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history. Richard Petty and David Person were racing to the checkered flag when the two tangled and found the wall in the tri-oval. Petty was spinning backwards into the grass, but looked like he would still cross the line. But, he then got stuck and was not able to get back going. Pearson drove his wrecked car across the line to win. Then came the 1979 race, which was the first NASCAR race broadcasted live on TV. Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were racing for the win on the last lap when the two slammed each other on the back stretch and wrecked in turn three. Richard Petty, who was far behind them, took advantage and won. The most famous image was the fight Yarborough had with Donnie and his brother Bobby. For Petty, it wrapped up a big decade at Daytona. 1979 marked his fourth win of the 1970's at the Daytona 500. He also won in 1971, 1973, and 1974.
The 1980 race, won by Buddy Baker, was the fastest in Daytona 500 history, with an average speed of 177.602 MPH. Richard Petty won his seventh in 1981. There were three two time winners in the 1980's. Cale Yarborough won back to back in 1983 and 1984, Bill Elliott won in 1985 and 1987, and Bobby Allison in 1982 and 1988. In that 1988 race, Bobby finished ahead of his son Davey. Geoff Bodine took the win in 1986. But, the most memorable race of the decade may have very well been in 1989. Darrell Waltrip, his 17th try to win the race, driving the #17 car, ran the last 50+ plus laps without a pit stop, winning the race while basically running on fumes. Waltrip showed the emotion that comes with winning the Daytona 500 in victory lane. Waltrip was shaking CBS reporter Mike Joy shouting "I won the Daytona 500!". Another famous image of that celebration was Darrell doing the "Ickey Shuffle", a touchdown dance made popular by running back Ickey Woods.
The 1990 race saw one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. Dale Earnhardt basically dominated the race. A late caution bunched up the field. Earnhardt seemed to have the race won, when in turn three of the final lap, a tire blew. Little known Derrike Cope took advantage of Dale's misfortune and won one of the most shocking races in the history of the sport. Morgan-McClure Racing won three Daytona 500's in the 1990's: Ernie Irvin in 1991 and Sterling Marlin back to back in 1994 and 1995. Second generation driver Davey Allison took the victory in 1992. There were two episodes of the "Dale and Dale Show" in the decade with Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt. In 1993, Jarrett passed Earnhardt on the last lap and took the win with is father Ned in the CBS broadcast booth. With Ned again in the booth, Jarrett beat Earnhardt to the line for the win in 1996. Jeff Gordon won in 1997 and 1999. But the biggest images of the decade came in 1998. After twenty years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. After the race, almost everyone in pit road lined up to congratulate Dale on finally winning the one big prize that had eluded him in his career.
Dale Jarrett's win in 2000 made him a three time Daytona 500 champion. Michael Waltrip won in 2001, his first Winston Cup win. But, that is overshadowed by Dale Earnhardt's tragic death on the final lap of that race. 2002 produced one of the weirdest finishes in Daytona 500 history. On a late restart, as another wreck was happening behind them, second place Sterling Marlin tapped leader Jeff Gordon, spinning him out. During a red flag to clean up the track, Marlin jumped out of his car and pulled on the part of the car that touched Gordon. That was against NASCAR's rule that says you cannot work on your car during a red flag. As a result, Marlin was sent to the back. One of the underdogs, Ward Burton won the race. Michael Waltrip won the 2003 race which was shortened because of rain, allowing him to celebrate like he was not able to do in '01. Six years after his father won his Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed the victory in 2004. Hendrick Racing claimed back to back wins with Jeff Gordon winning his third in 2005 and Jimmie Johnson with his first Daytona win in 2006. In one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history, Kevin Harvick edged Mark Martin by a bumper in 2007.
As we have seen, the Daytona 500 has established itself as one of the great sporting events in this country. It is a race that has helped made great careers legendary and made unknowns household names. Every NASCAR driver dreams of winning this race. For any driver to win "The Great American Race" is a memory that will last a lifetime, for them and the fans.
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