The inaugural Daytona 500 was one of the strangest. Lee Petty ended up winning in a literal photo finish — but the decision wasn’t made until three days later. Johnny Beauchamp was originally flagged the winner, but Petty protested the outcome and after a review of fan photographs, press pics and grainy black and white video that made the Zapruder film look like Avatar, Bill France Sr. gave the win to the patriarch of NASCAR’s most famous racing family. Petty and Beauchamp didn’t fare so well a couple of years later at Daytona. In the qualifying races for the 1961 event, both were involved in an accident that launched their cars out of the track in Turn 4 and seriously injuring Petty. While he entered only six more races, his win in the first 500 held at Daytona International Speedway was fitting.
by Vito Pugliese
9. 1988 — The Alabama Gang Takes Center Stage
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In the 1980s, there were a number of second- and third-generation drivers coming along, destined to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Larry Pearson, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett were all making an effort to live up to the family name. One stood above the rest, though, evident that he would be something special – Davey Allison, son of Hall of Famer Bobby. Davey won two races in his rookie season of 1987 — something that just wasn’t done by rookies in those days. In ’88, his Robert Yates-powered Havoline Thunderbird hung tight with his father’s Miller High Life Buick in the 500, but didn’t quite have enough to challenge him at the end. It was Bobby’s third 500 win, but his final victory in what would be an abbreviated season, as he nearly lost his life in a crash at Pocono just four months later. Sadly, due to the accident, Bobby has no memory of one of the most endearing finishes in NASCAR history.
by Vito Pugliese
8. 1990 —Seagulls, Shrapnel … and who is Derrike Cope?
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Is it still paranoia if they really are out to get you? Dale Earnhardt had to be thinking that as he ran over a piece of Ricky Rudd’s shattered bell housing entering Turn 3 while leading the final lap of the Daytona 500. Having just missed the 1989 Winston Cup by 12 points to Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt had the Harley J. Earle Trophy locked up, despite having nailed a seagull at 195 mph on the backstretch early in the race, which was captured and replayed throughout the afternoon. PETA is still probably pissed about that one. Earnhardt, though, would have to wait eight years until the bad luck would cease to claim the one prize that had eluded him. Derrike Cope, in Bob Whitcomb’s No. 10 Purolator Chevy, kept himself in a position to win and did just that after Earnhardt blew a right rear tire on the final lap. This finish even catches the smooth-as-silk Ned Jarrett a little off guard, as he gets a little tongue-tied calling the pass for win.
by Vito Pugliese
7. 1964 — All Hail the HEMI!
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There are three names that Mopar freaks hold in high regard: Richard Petty, Dick Landy and Tom Hoover. Hoover is known as the Grandfather of the 426 Hemi, which made its NASCAR debut in 1964 at the Daytona 500. To say they had the field covered was a bit of an understatement. Paul Goldsmith won the pole at a speed of 174.91mph — on tires carved from granite. Richard Petty started alongside on the front row and dominated the action in his Plymouth Belvedere. There were only six lead changes between Petty, Goldsmith, A.J. Foyt and Bobby Isaac, with Petty leading from lap 52 to the finish. Petty by a lap over runner-up Jimmy Pardue and two laps over Goldsmith, but all three drove ’64 Plymouths powered by the new elephant motor. NASCAR would ban the engine for ’65, leading Petty to sit out for a season. Imagine the win and title total had he not.
by Vito Pugliese
6. 1981 – The King Wins on Strategy
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You could draw some similarities between the 1981 and 2013 NASCAR seasons. The former year witnessed a new, downsized body … and no one really knew what to expect from it. The Daytona 500 was actually the second race of the year at this time (the now-defunct Riverside road course hosted the first event of the year). Bobby Allison dominated the 500, leading 117 of the 200 laps, while briefly exchanging the lead with Ricky Rudd and Neil Bonnett. Richard Petty wasn’t even a factor – until it counted. Coming onto pit road with 27 laps remaining, Petty’s cousin, Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman, made the audible call for two tires. It got Petty out far enough in front that he and his STP Buick led the final 26 circuits — the only laps he’d lead all day — and cruised to Victory Lane for his seventh and final Daytona 500 victory.
by Vito Pugliese
5. 2007 — You Can Race Back to the Yellow … Starting Now
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Back around the mid-late 2000’s, NASCAR attendance and ratings started to decline. It seemed the rules were constantly changing to fit the current circumstance, phantom yellows run amok, and a new points system was being rolled out every season. During the 2003 season, it was determined that there would no longer be racing back to the yellow flag when a caution came out. The field would be frozen and timing and scoring determined the winner. In his 23rd start, and first outside of the No. 6 Roush Ford since 1988, Mark Martin had things sewn up. He just had to make it through a Green White Checker restart, and he’d have quite the consolation prize for not having won a title in 20 years of trying. As the wreck starts, Martin has the lead over Harvick. He pulls down to avoid the side draft of Harvick, anticipating the yellow flag that never flew – despite cars being upside down, on fire, and flipping through the grass.
4. 1998 – “The Intimidator” Breaks Through
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“After 20 years of trying, 20 years of frustration, Dale Earnhardt will come to the caution flag to win the Daytona 500!” A simply great call by Mike Joy in what he deemed, “the most anticipated moment in racing.” That sentiment was verified as every crewman from every team lined pit road to congratulate Earnhardt upon taking checkers. In watching the replay, Bobby Labonte started to make it a little more close than I remember, and if he had another lap, could have made things really interesting. All through Speedweeks, the parallels were drawn between John Elway, who finally won his first Super Bowl nearly a month earlier after so many devastating – and lopsided – loses, and Earnhardt, who was still looking for that elusive 500 win. A year removed from ending up on his lid on the last lap, but getting back in to finish the race, Earnhardt showed up at Daytona with a renewed determination and a new crew chief, having lured Larry McReynolds away from Robert Yates Racing and Ford. The ’98 version of the Daytona 500 was one of those races where everything just came together, nothing bad happened, and the guy you expected to win actually did.
by Vito Pugliese
3. 1976– Pearson Outfoxes Petty
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It the mid- to late- '70s, the superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega were barnburners. You could count on one hand who was going to be factory: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough. The 1976 edition of the 500 was about as good as it gets, with Pearson and Petty sandbagging and sling-shotting during the final laps. The Silver Fox pulled a monster slide job going into Turn 3, but The King side-drafted through 4 and powered by on exit. Almost. As the two titans of the sport made contact and spun out of control, Pearson managed to kick in the clutch to keep the powerplant alive, while Petty’s went kaput. Pearson’s take? “The bitch wrecked me!” Note the wee Scott, three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart commentating. Perhaps Michael Schumacher would care to drop by the booth this weekend and offer his thoughts on the drivers “giving a maximum effort.”
by Vito Pugliese
2. 2001 – NASCAR’s Darkest Hour
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The 2001 Daytona 500 should have been the greatest ever. It marked the first race of NASCAR’s new multi-billion dollar TV package, while the roof-wicker aero-package was about the best NASCAR had put together — and a seven-time champ was back in form after a few lean years, having pulled off the greatest come-from-behind win in series history at the fall Talladega race in 2000. Headed into the final lap, Dale Earnhardt was watching the two cars he owned – those of Michael Waltrip, his longtime friend who was determined he reach his potential, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. We all know how it ends — the significance of Waltrip’s first Cup win in 462 starts, the tears and concern of a brother, friend and former rival in the broadcast booth — so we’ll not belabor the point. But if there is one saving grace from this event, it has been the constant focus and improvement on safety within the sport.
by Vito Pugliese
1. 1979 – “The Great American Race” is Born
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“There’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers over-flowing, they’re angry, they know they have lost…” No surprise here, as the 1979 installment tops any and all Daytona 500 lists. Those immortal words from Ken Squier cemented the key event in the history of NASCAR, thrusting it from underground regional spectacle into full-blown national consciousness. Amazing how one man and three cameras can cover a race better than the army of aerial drones and three different studios can today. Aided by a blizzard in the Northeast, a post-race fight and Richard Petty breaking through (ending a winless drought from injuries and the disaster that was the Dodge Magnum), the ’79 race put the Daytona 500 on the map as a major sporting event and, as Petty has said many times, “took us from the Sports page to the front page.” Looks like a certain brunette from Roscoe, Ill., did the same, once again, this past weekend.
It was a hard-fought effort at New Hampshire, a solid third-place finish for Davey Allison as he tried to right the ship in a disappointing 1993. One year removed from title contention, he hadn’t won since Richmond in March and sat fifth in points, a whopping 323 behind Dale Earnhardt roughly halfway through the season.
“Just wait until next year,” he said after not winning that Sunday. “Come back and try it again.”
The tragic reality? There would be no 1994 trip to the Magic Mile. In a cryptic interview, one in which he specifically went out of his way to mention the wife and kids this post-race chat, was the last time we ever heard from Allison in public. The next day, en route to a test session at Talladega, Allison crashed his helicopter while landing at the speedway, killing himself and seriously injuring longtime friend Red Farmer. It’s a tragic reminder of how fragile life can be in the racing world.
by Tom Bowles
9. Rusty Wins Inaugural Race
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On the same Sunday as Allison’s interview, Rusty Wallace took control of the first ever Cup event held at New Hampshire’s 1.058-mile oval. Starting 33rd, it didn’t take long for the No. 2 Miller car to rip its way through the field, taking the lead shortly after the halfway point and establishing itself as the fastest car. For a debut race, the finish was fairly tame at the speedway – Wallace took the lead on a pit stop during the final caution with 30 laps remaining and breezed to a 1.31-second victory over Mark Martin. It was part of a 10-win season for Rusty, perhaps Penske Racing’s finest effort, but DNFs would ultimately derail him in a quest for a second title over Dale Earnhardt. And as for the Magic Mile? It’s a good thing Rusty cashed in early; he never won again at the speedway, leading just 145 laps in 21 additional starts after starting off his Loudon career by pacing the field for 106 circuits.
by Tom Bowles
7. Burton Wins Third Straight … When Stewart Runs Out of Gas
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Tony Stewart and fuel at Loudon seem to mesh as well as Juan Pablo Montoya and jet dryers. Dominating the 1999 Jiffy Lube 300, the Cup Series rookie appeared to be headed towards his first victory, but out of nowhere the fuel tank ran dry with just over two laps remaining. That left Burton, who started 38th, to seize control and take a shocking victory to become the only driver in NASCAR history to win three straight spring/summer races in New Hampshire. Overall, the Magic Mile has treated Burton well; his four career victories there are the most for him at any facility on the Cup circuit. But the race was notable just as much for Stewart’s temperamental reaction — a sign of things to come — after coasting to pit road, he waved off the media and stormed out of the race track without comment. “I was so consumed with emotion,” he said later. “I just didn’t do the right thing.” It wouldn’t be the last time we’d see that in this Sprint Cup career.
by Tom Bowles; Photo by NHMS
6. Payback Proves Costly in Chase
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Once upon a time, back when points didn’t consume drivers every minute of every race, they didn’t automatically tiptoe around championship contenders during the Chase. Robby Gordon, in 2004, was a prime example. During NASCAR’s first ever postseason event, at the height of drama and the unknown, he turned it into a “tete a tete” with Greg Biffle … other drivers be damned. After Biffle spun him out early, Gordon waited for an opportunity to hit the No. 16 back and piledrove him in Turn 1, igniting a multi-car wreck. Tony Stewart, then Jeremy Mayfield got involved as two Chasers saw their title dreams go up in smoke over someone else’s mess.
“I don’t know why they’re settling it on the race track,” said Mayfield after bringing his car behind the wall for repairs. “I guess they’re too scared to settle it outside the race track.”
Gordon got penalized two laps for starting the whole mess, but the die was cast: the reaction from Chasers seems to have started a trend where those not involved in the championship are extra careful not to interfere in the title race.
by Tom Bowles
5. Jimmie Johnson’s Spin … to Ultimate Win
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One year removed from the “milk and cookies” meeting — the infamous Rick Hendrick/Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson powwow that ultimately saved their relationship — Johnson headed into the 2006 Chase with high hopes. Having lost the championship to Tony Stewart the year prior, the group was determined to push forward but bad timing on a chain reaction incident, early in this race at New Hampshire, pushed the No. 48 right into the wall. It would leave them ninth in points after the race, 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick and seemingly out of the hunt for another title.
“There are nine more,” Johnson said cryptically. “There's a lot of time left. Anything can happen.”
And it did. J.J. roared back from the deficit to take the first of five consecutive titles. Fuel for thought in Jeff Gordon’s camp this season, perhaps?
by Tom Bowles
4. Mother Nature Smiles on Logano
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For the rookie known as “Sliced Bread,” New Hampshire was doing a good job of trying to slice his car into tiny little pieces in the spring of 2009. Falling a lap down at one point, he actually caused the race’s ninth caution by spinning out on lap 184. But another incident a few laps later, involving the No. 82 of Scott Speed, earned Logano his lap back via the Lucky Dog – and an opportunity.
Crew chief Greg Zipadelli, knowing the car would start at the end of the longest line anyway, brought his driver in for an extra splash of fuel, knowing Mother Nature had some storm clouds on the horizon. Turns out a long green-flag run immediately unfolded, and when other drivers had to make their stops, the battered and bruised No. 20 Toyota could go just a bit longer than anyone else. Running conservatively, in part because the car was a mangled mess, Logano was in front by just a few seconds at the perfect time – when a raging downpour soaked the track and forced a yellow, red, then a checkered flag 27 laps early.
It was the most surprising way anyone expected the “best driver of his generation,” according to friend Mark Martin, to win a race. But what’s even more shocking? It took until Pocono, in June 2012 for this once-promising youngster to take race number two on the Cup level.
by Tom Bowles
3. Jimmie Johnson vs. Kurt Busch
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Kurt Busch doesn’t like Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t like Kurt Busch. So for the two of them to race together in the closing laps of New Hampshire in 2010, you knew something a little out of the ordinary was going to happen. Johnson clearly had the fastest car, but Busch had the best front bumper as he outright pushed the No. 48 car out of the way entering Turn 1. The defending Cup Series champ slipped, but never outright lost control, in a move that would prove to be Busch’s undoing. Losing about a second, Johnson quickly ran the No. 2 back down, produced payback with a little contact of his own, and scooted by for the win with about two laps remaining.
“I usually get caught up in it,” Johnson said after the race. “So I knew what my thought process was, ‘Wreck his ass.’”
Busch did hold on to finish third but the intimidation tactics didn’t really work; Johnson charged on to win the 2010 title over Denny Hamlin.
by Tom Bowles
2. Clash of the Gordons
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It was a Twilight Zone race, a crisp and cold day where New Hampshire served as a substitute season finale for NASCAR. Postponed from the attacks of September 11, 2011, to after Thanksgiving this event was purely for show, as Jeff Gordon clinched the championship one race earlier at Atlanta. But that didn’t stop him from stomping the field in Loudon. In all, the No. 24 car led 257 of 300 laps, and was in its own time zone until a series of late cautions changed the outcome of the race.
Losing the lead to Sterling Marlin on pit road, Gordon was put in heavy traffic and forced to fight his way back to the front. In the process, Robby Gordon, who had put together a credible, top-5 performance, closed in on the back bumper of Gordon and made his presence known. The two tangled, with Jeff losing control – and his edge – while their sheet metal rub slid them into Mike Wallace and spun the No. 12 out.
Jeff was angry, and retaliated under yellow, but Robby was focused from that point on and sped to his first ever Cup Series victory.
“Everybody thought you couldn't make me mad. You can make me mad,” said Jeff afterwards. “It was a heck of a battle. It was between me and him anyway. I just wish it would have been done fair and square instead of just knocking a guy out of the way.”
by Tom Bowles
1. Ernie Irvan Completes Comeback
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In August 1994, a wreck at Michigan left Ernie Irvan fighting for survival. The second tragedy in two years for Robert Yates Racing’s No. 28 Ford, you wondered what more could happen to an organization that was known as one of NASCAR’s classiest. But in a miraculous recovery that took over 14 months, Irvan bounced back and eventually returned to a racecar.
Competing full-time in 1996, he had run well at several tracks but Loudon was finally the place Irvan put it all together. Coasting to a five-second victory, bringing smiles to every crew member and race fan in the stands and taking the checkered flag made the miracle complete. In a “full circle” move, Irvan responded by doing a Polish Victory Lap, in honor of Alan Kulwicki and bringing to mind the late Davey Allison, who Irvan had replaced three years prior. It was also a sign of things to come for RYR, which saw its team finish 1-2 for the first time in history as the sport started towards the reality of multi-car programs continually on top of the charts.