There are few things in NASCAR more exciting than a green-white-checkered finish. Sprint Cup fans saw their first of the Gen Six era on Sunday, when Carl Edwards held off Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and the field to win the Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway.
But sometimes it doesn't take a two lap shootout to produce an incredible or memorable result. In fact, many of NASCAR's greatest finishes have been the result of battles that came out of one driver tracking down another in the race's final laps. These 10 finishes hold a special place in NASCAR history as classic examples of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat.
Mark Martin never won a championship or Daytona 500 during many years of full-time competition with Roush Racing. But in his limited-schedule debut with Ginn Racing, he was poised to finally win the sport's biggest race after a late-race caution and pit stops allowed him to inherit the lead on lap 176.
Not so fast. Martin would continue to hold the lead through two more accident-induced cautions, but after a wreck coming off of turn four during a green-white-checkered finish, NASCAR elected not to throw the caution and freeze the field. Kevin Harvick seized the opportunity, sneaking by Martin to win his first Daytona 500 by .020 seconds, while the flaming car of Harvick's teammate Clint Bowyer flipped across the finish line.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup created an incredible head-to-head battle between Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart heading into 2011's season finale. Edwards led the standings by three points, while Stewart had more wins by a margin of four to one. Whoever won the race would win the championship.
Edwards gave it everything he had, qualifying first and leading a race-high 119 laps. Stewart qualified 15th, but fell to 40th on lap 22 after requiring grille repairs. But he made it all the way through the field, positioning himself to take the lead one lap after the final restart on lap 231 with well-timed pit stops. Edwards couldn't catch Stewart and his fresher tires, giving Stewart the victory; he would also take the championship by virtue of more victories, as the two drivers produced the first points tie in series history.
There's no better way to introduce a marquee event than with a legendary finish, and the first-ever Daytona 500 had it. 59 cars—20 of which were convertibles—started the inaugural event. Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battled in the race's final laps, with Petty beating Beauchamp to the line in a photo finish.
But initially, NASCAR got the results wrong, as Beauchamp was awarded the victory. Both drivers claimed to be ahead of the other at the finish, while Bill France Sr. took three days to determine the true victor. That Wednesday, Petty was awarded the victory, and with it a prize of over $19,000.
After a winless debut season in 1992, Joe Gibbs Racing and Dale Jarrett entered 1993 hoping to improve on their 19th place finish in points. They would qualify second alongside Kyle Petty for the season-opening Daytona 500, and the No. 18 car would hang around the front all day as rivals like Petty, Rusty Wallace and Ernie Irvan would fall out due to crashes.
Dale Earnhardt had the car to beat, leading 107 laps that day, but Jarrett stalked the famous No. 3 in the late stages of the race. On the final lap, Jarrett made the winning pass, as proud father Ned called the race from the CBS broadcast booth. Jarrett would win two more Daytona 500s in his career, while Earnhardt would have to wait until 1998 to finally win the sport's biggest race.
For the past two years, fans at Watkins Glen have been treated to incredible finishes between the same trio of drivers. The group has run the gamut of road course experiences; while Ambrose has won multiple Australian V8 Supercars championships, Keselowski once broke his ankle in a major testing accident at Road Atlanta.
In 2011, a caution on the race's final lap cut short an intense battle with Ambrose ahead of Keselowski and Busch. In 2012, there was no caution, although Busch spun after slipping in oil and being tagged from behind by Keselowski. The resulting battle between Keselowski and Ambrose saw both cars push through off track excursions and badly misjudge corners before the Australian made it to the line to defend his title.
Petty and Pearson remain the two winningest drivers in Cup history, finishing 1-2 in 63 races over their storied careers. Pearson came out on top in 33 of those battles, the most famous of which came in Daytona in February 1976.
On the final lap, Pearson managed to get by Petty on the backstretch, but Petty refused to give up without a fight. The two drivers made contact heading for the finish line, with both wrecking short of the finish line. Petty couldn't get his car going again after the wreck, while Pearson managed to roll his mangled machinery across the finish line for his lone Daytona 500 win.
The wounds in the sport after the passing of Dale Earnhardt were still raw when NASCAR rolled into Atlanta in March 2001. Young Kevin Harvick, who had been driving in the Busch Series for Richard Childress Racing, was thrust into the spotlight after he was tapped to replace Earnhardt in the newly rebranded No. 29 car.
After finishes of 14th at Rockingham in his Cup debut and eighth at Las Vegas, Harvick qualified fifth at Atlanta. He took the lead from Dale Jarrett with six laps to go, and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon at the finish line to take a cathartic victory by six thousandths of a second—to this day one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.
This was the race that made NASCAR a viable live television product. The first 500-mile event to be broadcast live in its entirety, CBS also benefited from a major snowstorm that kept much of the country from traveling. Those who tuned in saw Richard Petty win his sixth Daytona 500, but the more lasting memory came from the drivers who lost at race's end.
Donnie Allison led Cale Yarborough into the final lap, but Yarborough tried to make a slingshot pass on the backstretch. When Allison blocked, Yarborough's tires hit the infield grass, causing the cars to make contact multiple times and crash heading into turn three. While Petty coasted to victory, Allison and Yarborough were left to deal with the aftermath, with Allison's brother Bobby the catalyst for what became one of the most famous fights in NASCAR history.
The gap between first and second place wasn't too close, but this race set the standard for NASCAR for years to come with the amount of significant storylines present. Not only was this the only Cup race that both Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty would compete in, but it was also host to arguably the greatest championship battle ever; six drivers entered the 1992 season finale with a mathematical championship shot.
Davey Allison entered the race leading Bill Elliott by 30 points and Alan Kulwicki by 40, but a late race accident removed him from title contention. Elliott won the race, leading 102 laps, but second-place finisher Kulwicki gained an extra five bonus points by leading 103. Kulwicki would win the championship by 10 points, the closest battle in NASCAR history until the Chase was introduced.
Craven and Busch's careers followed two very different paths. Craven, once a Hendrick Motorsports driver, had his career derailed by concussions before finally scoring his first of two career Cup wins in 2001; Busch, meanwhile, was a rising star with Roush Racing, a season away from winning a championship and not far from replacing Rusty Wallace in the famed No. 2 car.
But the two will forever be linked by what remains the closest finish in NASCAR history. Busch took the lead on lap 270 of 293 and was poised to score his first win of the season, until Craven began to challenge him in the race's final laps. Craven finally muscled by at the finish line, winning by .002 seconds. (Don't fret for Busch, though—he would win the next weekend at Bristol.)
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