The 10 Biggest Moments in the History of the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

Joseph SheltonContributor IIIFebruary 15, 2013

The 10 Biggest Moments in the History of the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona

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    Originally introduced in 1979 as the Busch Clash, the Sprint Unlimited serves as the unofficial season opener for the Sprint Cup Series season.

    Although not as hyped as the Daytona Speedweeks finale, the Daytona 500, the event has seen a good amount of moments that were shocking, terrifying, and heart-warming. Often times, but not always, the event would serve as a precursor of what was to come in the week ahead.

    With the 2013 edition a little less than 24 hours away, here is a list of the 10 biggest moments in the history of the Sprint Unlimited.

2012 (Welcome to the Club, Jeff!)

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    Early in Jeff Gordon's Cup career, it was a rare instance when you'd see that No. 24 Chevy wadded up before the end of a race.

    One of his strongest points as a driver was his ability to avert trouble more often than not, and often times that trait alone would land him in victory lane. Even when he did find trouble, it wasn't enough to include him in the rather infamous club of drivers who have turned their cars turtle.

    That is, until the 2012 Budweiser Shootout.

    That race was the last to be run under that moniker, which was first introduced in 1998 as the shortened Bud Shootout. There were several wrecks involving several drivers, taking out such entries as David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., pole-sitter Martin Truex, Jr., and 500 winner Matt Kenseth. 

    With two laps remaining, Tony Stewart was leading and looked poised to take Shootout victory number four, with Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon in hot pursuit. Going into the third turn, Gordon tried to move Busch up the track to take second place when an awkward tap on the rear bumper of Busch's Toyota sent him sideways.

    Gordon tried to move up the track to avoid any further contact and proceeded to be turned along with Kurt Busch. Both went headfirst into the wall.

    Kyle Busch would go on to spin harmlessly while more cars were collected, including Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson, the latter of which would be turned into the 24 and lift him onto his side. Gordon's mount slid for several hundred feet before beginning a series of flips which ended with him on his roof. 

    All involved in the final multi-car accident walked away without injury, but the excitement wasn't over yet. Kyle Busch would go on to pit for tires and make his way to the front in the ensuing green-white-checkered finish, where he would barely edge ahead of Tony Stewart coming to the checkered flag and take the victory in a side-by-side finish. Kyle's win in the Shootout was the second straight for a Busch brother.

1984 ("Crashing! Rolling over Side over Side!")

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    When it comes to Daytona, it is safe to say that Ricky Rudd is the epitome of snake-bitten. Although he has had strong runs at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, all he really has to show for it is a qualifying race win during the 2000 Daytona Speedweeks.

    He has started on the front row for the Daytona 500 twice (2000, 2007), but fans are more apt to link Rudd and Daytona together by his spectacular tumble during the 1984 Busch Clash.

    Running near the front coming off of turn four, Rudd's No. 15 Thunderbird was tapped from behind by Jody Ridley. The car went sideways and airborne as it headed towards pit road before executing a series of sickening tumbles and spins before coming to rest in the frontstretch grass.

    "So I was going backwards and I just remember everything got really calm and really quiet and the car went airborne and I remember being not just airborne a little bit but being way up in the air," said Rudd in an interview on Speed TV several years later.

    "At that time, I thought that that was probably not a bad way to go. I thought I'd rather take my consequences and take a flip and being up in the air than I would be to bank off that wall I was gonna hit so hard."

    Rudd suffered two black eyes and several bruised ribs, but would proceed to finish seventh in the Daytona 500 the next week. He would go on to win at Richmond two weeks later.

    Rudd would flip again in the 2000 edition of the event, going airborne and onto his roof heading towards the checkered flag, However, that tumble was much easier on Rudd as he escaped without injury.

2006 (Surprise, Surprise)

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    When the white flag dropped on the 2006 Budweiser Shootout, Jimmie Johnson held his ground in front of Tony Stewart, but Stewart would take the position away going into turn one. He would go on to hold it down the backstretch and through turn three and turn four.

    However, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would get a huge run coming off of turn four in his devil-red Chevy and pull even with Stewart. They leaned on each other as they crossed the line, with Junior barely taking the spot in an epic photo finish. It was the type of finish that left you breathless and your heart thumping wildly in your chest.

    It was a heck of a race...for second place.

    Rookie Denny Hamlin wasn't the first rookie to enter the Budweiser Shootout, however his No. 11 FedEx Chevy was fast enough for him to at least make an impact going into the event.

    With his pole in the penultimate race of 2005 at Phoenix, he became the first Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender since Ryan Newman in 2002 to enter the Budweiser Shootout.

    Hamlin ran among the leaders in the event, and following his monumental victory proceeded to boil his tires until they exploded on the start/finish line. Although his success in the Shootout didn't translate into success in the Daytona 500, he proceeded to dominate at Pocono, sweeping both events and placing third in the final points, winning Rookie of the Year honors along the way.

    His third-place points effort was the highest points finish for a rookie in the modern era. 

    The 2006 Budweiser Shootout is also noted as being the first Shootout to end under a Green-White-Checkered finish. 

2004 (Dawn of a New Day)

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    Following the departure of Winston as the primary sponsor of the Cup series in 2003, NEXTEL took over in 2004 in a move that was to be one of many monumental changes on the NASCAR landscape. In their first race as title sponsor, Dale Jarrett would proceed to hold off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for his third Shootout win and 10th Daytona victory overall. 

    The victory was huge for Jarrett in that it was his first trip to victory lane since Rockingham in the second race of 2003. Many had chosen Dale Jr. as the winner of the event, defending his 2003 victory with a second consecutive win.

    Instead, with two laps to go, it was Junior who pushed Jarrett's No. 88 past the No. 29 of Kevin Harvick. Jarrett became the first winner under the NEXTEL banner.

    Controversy erupted on the last lap, as the Dodges of Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman tangled on the backstretch. A rule that was enabled in 2003 after a crash at New Hampshire involving Jarrett prohibited racing back to the caution flag, yet when NASCAR chose not to fly the caution after the wreck on the backstretch many believed that NASCAR created a dangerous situation that could have been worse.

    Jarrett would go on to retire after the 2008 All-Star event at Charlotte.

2001 (Finest Hour)

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    The 2001 Daytona Speedweeks has achieved a strong sense of infamy in the sports world, for obvious reasons.

    Although the racing was great, and the NASCAR world was seeing the beginning of a new era for the sport with such additions as the introduction of NASCAR on Fox, the return of Dodge, and the new superspeedway package, all would be darkened by the loss of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.

    The 2001 Budweiser Shootout was the first event shown on NASCAR on Fox and the first race for the new Dodge Intrepids.

    It would be one of the last times the sport would see Dale Sr. in vintage form as he had one of the strongest cars during Daytona Speedweeks and he would proceed to run at the front for most of the day.

    Eventually the day would belong to Tony Stewart, but many believe this race was one of Dale's finest hours. 

2000 (Jarrett Dominates)

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    Clean sweeps are nothing new in NASCAR. They have been accomplished time and time again, and Daytona isn't excluded. Case in point: Daytona Speedweeks 2000.

    Dale Jarrett wasn't just the class of the field in the 500, he was the class of the field the entire time NASCAR was in Daytona that February. When he wasn't in first place, he was within touching distance.

    His victory in the Shootout, his second overall, was the start of a string of dominance where he would go on to win the pole for the 500, place second in his qualifying race, and win his third 500 overall.

    Jarrett became just the fifth driver to win the Shootout and the 500 in the same year. He also became the fourth drive to ever win three or more times in the Daytona 500.

1984 (Bonnett Wins Clash No. 2)

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    Aside from being noted for Ricky Rudd's tumble down pit road, the 1984 edition of the Busch Clash is also noted as the first time a driver won multiple Busch Clash events, when Neil Bonnett won his second consecutive Busch Clash driving for Junior Johnson. 

    The race, which was slowed by the single caution for Rudd's accident, averaged at 15 minutes and 30 seconds,with Bonnett triumphing over Cale Yarborough's Hardee's ride by two car lengths. 1979 Clash winner Buddy Baker would finish third. 

1979 (In the Beginning...)

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    The race was first introduced in 1979 as an exhibition race for the pole winners of the 1978 Winston Cup season. The race, brainchild of Busch Beer brand manager Monty Roberts, was formatted as a 50-mile event without pit-stops.

    Roberts believed that by inviting the fastest drivers from 1978, they would find more incentive to try and earn more poles. The event was dubbed "The Fastest Race of the Season."

    Benny Parsons drew the pole for the event, which ran without caution. Buddy Baker would go on to win by a car length over second-place Darrell Waltrip, in a race that lasted at a now unheard time of 15 minutes and 30 seconds!

    The race would however be overshadowed by what would transpire a week later in the infamous fistfight of the 1979 Daytona 500.

2003 (Domin-EIGHT-tion)

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    Daytona and Earnhardt are two names that without a doubt go hand-in-hand with each other. The combination conjures images of heartbreak and triumph, sadness and elation. With that being said, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s victory in the 2003 edition has earned a spot on this list.

    When Daytona Speedweeks 2003 rolled around, Earnhardt Romanticists were quick to point out that this was going to be Junior's year to take the 500. A prevailing theory was that it was 2003, the third Speedweeks since Dale Sr's last Daytona Speedweeks, and so on.

    That logic had gained ground, since in 2001 Kevin Harvick won in just his third start, the third race without Senior, and Junior got his third career win at Daytona. A much more logical theory that asserted itself was that Junior was going to win because his car was just plain dominant. 

    This was proven the night of the 2003 Budweiser Shootout, when Dale Jr. made a mockery of the competition to win his first Shootout ten years after Dale Sr. won his fifth.

    The next week after the victory in his sponsor's namesake event served to strengthen the idea that he was going to take the 500 as he would take the outside pole for the 500, win the second qualifying race, and win the Koolerz 300 the day before the Daytona 500.

    This was not to be, as battery issues hampered his progress and put him two laps down. He proceeded to get his laps back, but the race would be called for rain after only 109 laps. Michael Waltrip would go on to get his second 500 win.

    Junior would win the Shootout again in 2008, but the 2003 win will always stand out as one of the most dominant performances in Shootout history. 

1991 (Dale Wins No. 4)

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    Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was said to have loathed restrictor plate racing. However, his mastery of it did little to prove that theory as he dominated racing at Daytona and Talladega. His 10 victories at Talladega and 34 victories at Daytona stand as records that will not be exceeded any time soon.

    Many people remember Dale's last career win, the 2000 Winston 500 at Talladega, for his charge to the front with only five laps remaining as he was in 18th at that time. The race defined Earnhardt's superspeedway mastery, but it wasn't the only one.

    In 1991, the Busch Clash format was changed to two 10-lap segments. The winner of the first segment would be placed at the back of the back for the second segment. Earnhardt was undeterred, as he would go on to win the first segment.

    When the second segment started, Earnhardt would  proceed to pass four cars going into turn one on lap one and take the lead going into turn three on lap two. He proceeded to check out and cruise to victory lane.

    Although dominant, his success in the Clash that year couldn't translate into a victory in the 500 that year, and he wouldn't get that crowning achievement, a 500 victory, until 1998.