This year’s Daytona 500 is a couple of days away and some are already hyping it to be potentially the best ever. The new pavement is the biggest reason, as handling will not be a factor and it will be all about drafting. After Saturday night’s Bud Shootout that saw a record 28 lead changes, but also the disappearance of the 30 car pack that was replaced with two car drafts, it seems many are split on what to expect Sunday.
For the record, I really enjoyed the two car breakaways. I don’t want it to permanently replace the tight packs we are used to seeing at the restrictor plate tracks, but it was nice to see something different. It eliminated the chance of the “big one” drivers hate to see (that Edwards-Earnhardt wreck last Saturday was not a “big one”) but it also allowed the drivers to pass at will.
As I write this, just before the Duels, NASCAR has made changes to the cooling system and the restrictor plate. Speeds in Wednesday ‘s practice were down to “just” 200 miles per hour and the two car breakaway still seemed to be in full swing. If there is more of that on Thursday, expect NASCAR to make even more changes in an attempt to make the biggest race of the year a disappointment. Seriously, what’s the point? The Shootout was an amazing race, unless you don’t enjoy passing and fast speeds. Either way, I am crossing my fingers that whatever changes are to come, this year’s Daytona 500 will be one of the best. Here are some it will try to compete with to be the most exciting.
1.) 1979 – Petty wins it!
Everyone remembers this for the last lap crash between leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough and the fight afterwards. Prior to that lap however, the 1979 Daytona 500 had already shaped up as one of the greatest races in NASCAR history.
Even though the first 15 laps were run under the caution because of a wet track, it was clear it was going to be a comptetive race once the green flag waved. Allison, his brother Bobby, and Yarborough were all fast early on before they were involved in a three car wreck. The incident knocked all three several laps down. To see Donnie and Cale make up their laps without assistance from a wave around or free pass makes it all the more fascinating.
While these guys were busy making up their laps, there was still an intense battle up front. Benny Parsons seemed to have the fastest car in the early portion, but could never lead more than several consecutive laps at a time. Among his competitors included Richard Petty, up and coming Neil Bonnett, and rookie Dale Earnhardt. All remained competitive until various factors eliminated these guys from contention. By that point, Allison and Yarborough were back up front to bring it on home. After they took each other out on the last lap, the battle for the win was now between Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and A.J Foyt. Petty crossed the line first for his seventh 500 triumph.
It was essential for this race to be a good one; it was the first NASCAR race televised flag to flag. With most of the Northeast snowed in that weekend, more people than ever were going to be watching. If the race had been a dud, who knows whether NASCAR could have had as much success as it did in the 80’s.
2.) 2007 – Where did he come from?
This one wasn’t nearly as entertaining in the beginning as the 1979 event, but it certainly was interesting. Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, who have established a nice rivalry both on and off the track in the years since, clearly had the fastest cars. A pit road penalty shortly before the midpoint sent Stewart to the back that left viewers curious as to when he would catch back up to Busch. It took Smoke about 70 laps to work his way back up to the lead, only to crash laps later and take Busch out with him.
With the two fastest cars out of the race, things started heating up. Mark Martin, who was winless in his previous 22 Daytona 500’s established himself as the new man to beat, but had wild man Kyle Busch stalking him for the final laps. Busch waited until half a lap to go to make his move, but in doing so, allowed the outside line led by Kevin Harvick to pick up steam. Harvick and Martin were side by side coming off of turn four to the line when a massive wreck occurred behind them. Thankfully, NASCAR didn’t throw the caution and let them race to the finish. Harvick denied Martin his first 500 victory by a margin of .020 seconds, a finish only Hollywood could create. It is the closest finish in 500 history and the 10th closest finish in NASCAR history.
3.) 1976 – Slingshot gone wrong
The greatest rivalry in NASCAR was Richard Petty versus David Pearson. These two legends had perhaps their greatest battle in this contest. Petty led coming to the white, but the Silver Fox was able draft past him the backstretch. Petty then attempted to slingshot past Pearson going into turn four. Contact was made and both were sent crashing. It looked for a minute like Petty was going to cross the finish line spinning backwards until he abruptly stopped a few yards shy of the finish. The King was unable to restart his car, and it was Pearson limping across the line at no more than 30 miles an hour. To me, for it to happen between NASCAR’s two greatest drivers, it was the coolest finish ever.
It’s not like it was just the ending that made this race exciting; no driver led more than 19 consecutive laps the entire race. This is pretty remarkable considering there were no restrictor plates back in the day. Petty, Pearson, and Foyt had all exchanged the lead over multiple points during the day and no one car was overly dominant.
4.) 1959- Petty by two feet
This one is tricky to gauge as there is limited video footage and it was well before the Garrett era. Using the little video access there is along with doing a little more research, it becomes clear this one was special. More importantly, after years of running races on the beach, this marked the first Daytona 500 and was influential for the 500’s that followed. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp exchanged the lead multiple times in the late stages that set up for a photo finish that took several days to determine the winner. Petty was declared the winner in the first Great American Race. Had we not had the photo finish between them, who really knows whether NASCAR could have grown the way it did, much like 1979’s contest.
5.) 2001 – Waltrip wins, NASCAR loses a legend
For obvious reasons, this one is a touchy subject. I hesitated putting it on the list. The ending was tragic and it is hard to remember February 18th, 2001, as anything but. So let me make this clear – strictly from a racing standpoint, the 2001 Daytona 500 was a thrilling one.
There were numerous storylines headed into this race. Dale Earnhardt, coming off a runner up points finish in 2000 after a few years of mediocrity headed into Daytona looking for an unprecedented eighth championship. NASCAR brought the same rules package that they had at the previous restrictor plate race at Talladega where roof strips were placed on the cars to increase drag. It resulted in one of the best plate races ever, with Earnhardt going from 18th to 1st in just 5 laps for what turned out to be his last win. It also marked the return of Dodge to NASCAR and it was FOX’s first broadcast.
There were plenty of lead changes, and a scary wreck on the backstretch that eliminated over 20 cars. Earnhardt missed the wreck by inches and one can’t help but wonder what the state of NASCAR would be today had he been involved in that wreck.
Two of Earnhardt’s cars, Michael Waltrip and son Dale Earnhardt Jr., were running one-two in the late stages with the Intimidator running third. Waltrip, who had never won in his 16 year career in Sprint Cup competition, was in his first race for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. If his teammates were going to pass him, they were going to wait until the last lap, but he had to worry about Sterling Marlin, who had one of the fastest cars during Speedweeks. If you weren’t new to racing, you couldn’t help but pull for Waltrip in those final laps to pull off a Cinderella story. If you were one of those people not cheering for him, it’s likely you were pulling for the two Earnhardts behind him. Either way, there was no shortage of excitement in this one.
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