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Ranking the 20 Greatest Moments in Daytona 500 History

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2013

Ranking the 20 Greatest Moments in Daytona 500 History

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    Danica Patrick's historic achievement of winning the pole position for Sunday's 55th Daytona 500 was the latest in a long list of some of the greatest moments associated with The Great American Race.

    From triumph to tragedy, Daytona has produced some of the most unforgettable elements of NASCAR's overall historic legacy. The majority of Daytona's most memorable moments have come during NASCAR's modern era of 1972 to the present, but we also go back to the race's early years for moments that should be on this written highlight reel.

    As we prepare for Sunday's race, let's revisit the Daytona 500's 20 greatest moments. And don't be surprised if we have at least another moment or two in this year's version of NASCAR's Super Bowl that may ultimately be added to this list.


20. 1967—Mario Andretti Makes History

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    Arguably the most versatile driver in the history of motorsports, having achieved success in Formula One, Indy Car and stock car racing, Mario Andretti competed in just 14 NASCAR Grand National (the precursor to Winston Cup and Sprint Cup) races in his career.

    Of those 14 races, three were in the sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500. While Andretti finished out of the running in 1966 (37th) and 1968 (29th), it was the 1967 Daytona 500 that became one of the biggest highlights of his storied career by showing NASCAR drivers how it's done, taking the checkered flag.

    In so doing, Andretti became one of only two drivers in motorsports history to win both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, which he won in 1969. He's also one of just two drivers (2011 500 winner Trevor Bayne is the other) whose only career win in NASCAR came in its biggest race.

19. 1974—The Daytona 450?

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    While it still carried the Daytona 500 name, the 1974 race was actually a 450-mile event—and had nothing to do with weather or a bad wreck that caused it to be shortened.

    With the country in the middle of an energy crisis, NASCAR tried to do its part by shortening all races that season by 10 percent to save fuel.

    Hence, instead of 500 miles, the race was cut to just 450 miles in total; it started on Lap 21 and continued on to the traditional 200th lap finish, even though only 180 laps were actually contested.

    Richard Petty took the lead with 11 laps remaining after both front tires on front-runner Donnie Allison's car were punctured by debris from a car whose engine had exploded, showering shrapnel all over the track. It would be Petty's fifth career win in the 500.

18. 2004—Winning One for Dad

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    Three years after his father tragically perished in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned what, to date, has been his only Daytona 500 win in 2004.

    The most touching part of Junior's win wasn't taking the checkered flag but rather the emotion that followed along pit road and victory lane as Junior dedicated his win to his late father. Tears of joy and empathy flowed like rivers, accompanied by near-deafening applause and cheers for a job well done.

    In an ironic twist, the younger Earnhardt's victory came exactly six years to the day of his father's one and only 500 triumph in the 1998 race, ending a 20-year run of frustration at trying to win the Great American Race.

    And in an equally rare display of sportsmanship, much like the way opposing drivers and teams lined up to congratulate the elder Earnhardt in 1998 on arguably the biggest win of his career, the younger Earnhardt received a standing ovation and long round of cheers and applause for his accomplishment in 2004, even from fans who weren't supporters of him or his father.

17. 2002—A Less-Than-Sterling Moment

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    In one of the most glaring "What was he thinking?" moments in Daytona 500 history, Sterling Marlin committed one of the cardinal sins of stock-car racing.

    While the race was stopped under red-flag conditions due to a multi-car wreck that Marlin actually started when he ran into Jeff Gordon, Marlin inexplicably climbed out of his car and tried to repair damage to the right fender—an absolute no-no.

    NASCAR officials ordered Marlin back in his car and, after debate and discussion, sent Marlin to the back of the field once the race resumed for the final six laps, ending his hopes for a third potential Daytona 500 win. Ward Burton would be the biggest recipient of Marlin's mistake, ultimately winning the race.

16. 2012—From Fireball to Twitter Mania

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    The first postponed race in Daytona 500 history—Sunday's scheduled afternoon start was pushed back to the following night due to rain—brought about a prime-time TV audience that saw true history happen in the 2012 edition.

    You can even make an argument that two of the most memorable moments in Daytona 500 history occurred as a result of the same event.

    First was unquestionably the most embarrassing moment of Juan Pablo Montoya's long racing career. As he was leaving pit road under caution, something broke in the steering of his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, and it made a violent turn to the right.

    Unfortunately, and without any control over the steering, Montoya and his car ran into the rear of a jet dryer that was trying to vacuum up some rain and moisture on the track. Talk about being in the wrong place at the time.

    Upon impact, the jet dryer exploded into a massive fireball. The spectacular video and photos of the blaze garnered worldwide news attention. Fortunately, neither Montoya nor the jet dryer driver were injured.

    And in the lengthy red-flag delay that ensued to first extinguish the fire and then repair damage the blaze did to the racing surface, Brad Keselowski unexpectedly whipped out his smart phone, began taking photos and sending tweets of the fire and wound up adding over 100,000 new Twitter followers at the same time.

    The resulting publicity paid massive dividends to NASCAR's social media efforts that lasted throughout the season (even though Keselowski was penalized late in the season for tweeting again).

15. 1993—Son, Father Share Special Moment

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    Dale Jarrett won the first of three Daytona 500s in 1993. While that in and of itself was noteworthy, Jarrett's triumph was made all the more special because his father Ned, now a member of NASCAR's Hall of Fame, was part of the TV broadcast team that called his son's win that day.

    But what made the win all the more special was how the younger Jarrett achieved it. While another Dale, the late Dale Earnhardt, led 107 laps and appeared as if he would finally break his long winless streak in the 500, the other Dale (Jarrett) took the lead on the final lap and drove right on to victory lane.

    Jarrett's win came exactly 30 years after his father lost his best chance to win the 500 in 1963 when the elder Jarrett's car ran out of fuel in the waning minutes.

14. 1960—Birth of the Draft

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    The late Dale Earnhardt used to say he could actually see air moving on a race track, allowing him to become a master of the art of drafting at Daytona and its sister track at Talladega.

    But Earnhardt wasn't the first driver to learn about the draft. That distinction goes to fellow Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, who discovered the draft by accident in the 1960 Daytona 500.

    Less than two weeks before that race, Johnson was without a ride. While he eventually got one, the car wasn't competitive at all, as much as 30 mph slower than his competitors.

    Then, as the story goes, during a practice session, Johnson was running close to the rear bumper of Cotton Owens' car and noticed that not only was Owens breaking up the wind resistance on Johnson's car, it was also pulling him along like a vacuum.

    Using that strategy, Johnson not only became the first man to learn about the draft that year, he also wound up winning the race, too!

13. 2013—Danica Patrick Wins the Pole

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    Admittedly, this is a work in progress, as we're writing this after Patrick won the pole for this year's Daytona 500 but before she competed in the actual race.

    Still, when Patrick crossed the finish line on her qualifying effort—and then her speed held up to assure she'd start Sunday's race from the pole—she made significant racing history.

    Not only was she the first woman to ever win a pole for a Cup race, she accomplished the feat for the sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500.

    Granted, winning a pole and winning the race are two entirely different things—only nine drivers have ever won the 500 from the pole in its 54-year history.

    But no matter what she does in Sunday's race, Patrick has already made significant NASCAR history and achieved one of the greatest moments in Daytona 500 annals—even before the race begins. Any success after that will just be a bonus.

12. 1981—Richard Petty Wins Record 7th Daytona 500

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    Richard Petty was known as The King throughout his legendary racing career, and a good part of that was also being the king of Daytona International Speedway.

    Petty won a record seven Daytona 500s. Cale Yarborough is the next closest with four wins.

    In typical Petty fashion, he put his own personal stamp on what would prove to be his seventh and final Daytona 500 triumph in 1981. Wanting to make sure they had enough fuel left for the final part of the race, Petty agreed with crew chief Dale Inman and pitted with less than 25 laps remaining.

    Not only was the pit stop unusually fast, Petty and his No. 43 Pontiac got back on the race track—and never lost the lead, truly a historic way to put a topper on a historic record that may likely never be broken.

11. 1988—Debut of the Restrictor Plate/Father-Son 1-2 Finish

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    The 1988 Daytona 500 marked the first time in NASCAR history that the use of a specific speed-controlling device—namely, what became known as the restrictor plate—was used.

    And 25 years later, we're still using plates at two of the largest tracks on the circuit, Daytona International Speedway and its sister track, Talladega Superspeedway.

    While the use of plates has served the purpose of slowing cars down, it also has led to pack racing that has, over the years, produced some spectacular wrecks, otherwise known as "The Big One."

    But the 1988 Daytona 500 is also memorable for one of the best "field-good" stories in NASCAR history, not to mention one of the best finishes the 500 has ever seen.

    Bobby Allison and son Davey battled each other on the final lap, with son trying to pass father in Turns 3 and 4, but father ultimately knew the best way to get around Daytona International Speedway, beating his offspring to the checkered flag.

    It would be the elder Allison's third and final Daytona 500 win, as just months later his storied racing career came to an abrupt end when he was almost killed in a wreck at Pocono.

    It was the first and, to date, the only one-two father-son finish in Daytona 500 history, with a touching and one-of-a-kind emotional moment in victory lane when the two Allisons celebrated.

10. 1989—Boogity, Boogity, Boogity, DW Finally Wins Daytona

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    Much like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip struggled for years to win the Daytona 500.

    But Waltrip finally achieved his long-held goal in 1989. And just like Earnhardt, who finally won in 1998, Waltrip's Daytona 500 win would be the first and only of his career.

    The best moment of all, though, wasn't during the race but rather in victory lane, where a jubilant Waltrip not only screamed "I won the Daytona 500," but also twisted his baseball cap around and proceeded to do an impromptu version of the "Ickey Shuffle," originated by NFL star Ickey Woods.

    Ironically, while Waltrip would win just one Daytona 500, younger brother Michael won NASCAR's biggest event twice in his career, first in 2001 (the same race that claimed Earnhardt's life) and again in 2003.

9. 2007—A Photo Finish

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    Mark Martin, who makes his 29th career start in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, looked like he would finally win his first Great American Race in 2007.

    But in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history, Kevin Harvick literally came out of nowhere to pass Martin going into Turn 3 of the final lap.

    While a massive wreck ensued behind them, Harvick and Martin engaged in a prolific drag race down Daytona International Speedway's front stretch, with Harvick winning by roughly a fourth-of-a-fender and at a winning margin of 0.02 seconds.

    Harvick also set a Daytona 500 record by coming from the furthest-back starting position (34th) to take the checkered flag.

    In much the same fashion as finishing second five times in the final season standings yet never winning a Cup championship, Martin once suffered the heartbreak of coming so close to winning the Daytona 500 for the umpteenth time, only to fall short yet again.

    Maybe, finally, he may win it in his 29th start Sunday.

8. 1977—Before Danica, There Was Janet Guthrie

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    When the green flag dropped to start the 1977 race, Janet Guthrie made history by becoming the first woman in NASCAR history to ever race in the Daytona 500.

    Guthrie, like Danica Patrick, spent much of her racing career overcoming obstacles. And the 1977 500 was no exception. Even with the odds stacked against her, including a 39th qualifying position and subsequent engine problems, Guthrie overcame to finish an impressive 12th.

    If there had not been a Janet Guthrie in NASCAR and Daytona annals, one has to wonder if Danica Patrick would even be where she'll be on Sunday, starting the 55th Daytona 500 from the pole.

7. 1972—A 'Guaranteed' Win

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    It takes guts to guarantee a victory in the Daytona 500, but that's exactly what A.J. Foyt did in 1972.

    Much like Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl win for the New York Jets three years earlier, Foyt confidently predicted that he'd take the checkered flag in 1972 after coming so close the year before, only to run out of fuel in the final minutes of the race.

    And while leading the race at the time, no less.

    Foyt felt Daytona owed him one, and he was bound and determined to make sure it paid up, dominating throughout. He would also join Mario Andretti as the only drivers to ever win both an Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.

6. 2011—Youth Is Served

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    In one of the most celebrated yet unlikely finishes in Daytona 500 history, Trevor Bayne—one day removed from his 20th birthday—shocked the racing world by winning the 2011 edition of the Great American Race.

    Not only did Bayne give the fabled Wood Brothers their fifth Daytona 500 win, he did so in spectacular fashion.

    When race leader Tony Stewart had a bad restart and fell off the pace, Bayne was pushed toward the front by Bobby Labonte. Even though Carl Edwards and David Gilliland were coming fast, Bayne held off a last-gasp run by Edwards off Turn 4 to pull off the unexpected triumph.

    The resulting emotional scene in victory lane is one that will be remembered by NASCAR fans for decades as the sport's oldest team won its fifth Daytona 500 with the youngest driver to ever win the Great American Race, a victory that spanned generations.

5. 1959—A Three-Day Finish

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    Feb. 22, 1959, was historic because it was the first race ever held at the brand new, and at the time, state-of-the-art Daytona International Speedway.

    But history would mix with controversy in how the inaugural 500 ultimately played out.

    A three-wide finish-line photo finish occurred between the cars of Johnny Beauchamp and Lee Petty, along with the lapped car of Joe Weatherly.

    NASCAR initially gave the win to Beauchamp, but Petty protested vigorously. Following three days of scrutiny of as many photos as they could get from photographers and even fans, as well as reviewing countless news footage from TV cameras, NASCAR officials reversed the decision three days later, awarding the first 500 win to Petty.

    That made it the first, and only, 500 to date that was decided not on the race track but at a table.

4. 1976—A Bang-Up Finish

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    During their careers, David Pearson and Richard Petty were fierce rivals. But nowhere was that rivalry more pronounced than the finish of the 1976 Daytona 500.

    Coming off the final turn of the race, both cars wrecked and spun into the grassy infield.

    From there, it was a matter of will and luck as Pearson would somehow manage to keep his mangled car running just enough to get through the grass and cross the finish line.

    Petty, meanwhile, fell victim to an engine that wouldn't restart after his car slid to a stop in the grass. And all he could do was watch helplessly as Pearson took the checkered flag with the only Daytona 500 win of his storied 105-win career.

    In perhaps one of the biggest ironies of the spectacular finish, Pearson and Petty were the only drivers to finish on the lead lap.

3. 1998—Finally, After 20 Tries

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    For all the greatness and success in his career, one race continually turned its back on Dale Earnhardt, that being the Daytona 500.

    No matter how hard he tried, it just seemed like Earnhardt would join a host of drivers who would never win the sport's biggest race.

    After coming so close so many times, Earnhardt finally captured the 1998 Daytona 500 in his 20th try, which would prove to be his first, and last, 500 win.

    While crossing the finish line was spectacular, an even greater moment occurred shortly afterward when Earnhardt came down pit road. In a move of solidarity among opponents rarely seen, members of virtually every opposing team came out to congratulate Earnhardt as he slowly drove past en route to victory lane.

    If his win had been a Hollywood movie, Earnhardt couldn't have written a better or more emotional ending than the celebratory gauntlet he passed through after winning the biggest race of his storied career.

2. 1979—The Most Important Race in NASCAR History

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    NASCAR's rise to national popularity began with a blizzard. With much of the Northeast and East Coast snowed in, not to mention it being the first NASCAR race to ever be televised live in its entirety, the perfect storm turned into a perfect outcome.

    With an essentially captive audience, few TV channels to choose from and little else to do, viewers who weren't even NASCAR fans tuned into the race, if for nothing else but the curiosity factor.

    NASCAR didn't disappoint, giving old and what would become new fans, a heck of a show, capped off by a win by the biggest name in the sport, Richard Petty.

    Even if viewers didn't know anything about NASCAR, Petty's name was so well-known that it helped bridge the gap to keep non-fans glued to their seats.

    But how Petty won is something that will likely remain one of the most unusual finishes in NASCAR history.

    As the race was drawing to a close, leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough engaged in a battle of wills and fenders that ultimately led to a wreck in Turn 3 that took both drivers out of the race.

    Petty, who prior to that wreck appeared lucky if he'd finish third, happily motored by for the victory. But things were just getting started, as Allison and Yarborough got out of their respective wrecked cars and began to duke it out with their fists.

    Donnie's older brother Bobby also got into the fracas before all three drivers were separated, and what would become known simply as "The Fight" went on to become one of the greatest moments in the sport's fabled history.

1. 2001—Death of a Legend

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    How can tragedy be justified as a "greatest moment"? Yet at the same time, Dale Earnhardt's death on a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500 was, perhaps, the biggest story to ever emerge not only from Daytona but any other NASCAR race in history.

    Instead of going for his second Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt appeared content to use the final lap to serve as a blocker for both of his drivers at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Michael Waltrip, as well as son Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    And while Waltrip and Junior would pull away to a one-two finish due in part to the elder Earnhardt's actions, it would also prove to be the thing that led to the death of NASCAR's fabled Intimidator.

    The loss of Earnhardt hit NASCAR so hard, but it also brought about long overdue change in the sport. Earnhardt was the fourth driver to be killed in a NASCAR racing incident in less than a year.

    Determined to prove that Earnhardt didn't die in vain, while at the same time affecting the largest—and long overdue—safety overhaul in the sport's history, NASCAR officials developed a safety platform that has resulted in no other on-track fatalities at a Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series race since.

    (Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski)

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