The Daytona 500 is the premier event on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Each season, the crown jewel on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the season-opening event, the Daytona 500. This is the sport's biggest race and the one that all of the competitors want to win the most.
As soon as the checkered flag waves at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, the countdown to the following February and the new season begins.
With each new season comes the opportunity to see new stars emerge, new rivalries formed and the overall excitement of 36 weeks of racing. The Daytona 500 is always the first chance at delivering a great race.
Sometimes, the Great American Race is worth the three-month, wait while other times, the action is minimal and it feels like a letdown.
The last 10 years are a perfect example of this. There have been some nail-biting finishes, but there have also been a few less-than-memorable events.
In the following slides, I will look back at the Daytona 500 races from each of the last 10 seasons and rank them from least entertaining all the way to the one that could be watched time and again.
In general, the main criteria for getting ranked near the top of the list is an exciting or dramatic finish. Unless something extraordinary or memorable takes place in the early stages of a race, the final handful of laps are what determines the overall quality of the event.
The only drama that the 2009 Daytona 500 featured was wondering how many laps the field could run until the rain came and put an early end to the event.
With 55 laps remaining, Matt Kenseth took the lead from Elliott Sadler. Less than one lap later, Aric Almirola spun into the infield after contact with Sam Hornish Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
Kenseth's green-flag pass on Sadler would prove to be the winning move, as the rains came while the field was lined up behind the pace car. The race was called after 152 of the scheduled 200 laps.
When Kenseth took the lead, it was the first time he had led the race the entire day.
The 152-lap event saw the caution flag wave eight times for 35 laps. One of those cautions was for a 10-car accident started at the front of the field when Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made contact.
This race featured only nine lead changes, and five times a driver was able to lead at least 14 consecutive laps.
It is never a good race when the most memorable thing to happen is an early checkered flag because of the weather.
While the 2004 Daytona 500 featured 26 lead changes among 10 drivers, it was primarily a two-man race throughout the day. Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combined to lead 156 of the 200 laps, with Stewart out front for a race-high 98 circuits.
Other than those two, only one other competitor led more than eight laps in the race.
The final 120 laps ran without a caution. This allowed the cars to get spread out for the final run of the day, and the finish saw minimal amounts of drama.
The event's final pass for the lead occurred when Earnhardt got around Stewart with 20 laps to go. The pair had previously slipped by rookie competitor Scott Wimmer, who had gotten to the front thanks to some pit strategy.
Stewart maintained his position in second, while Wimmer held third place. The top two drivers put enough distance between themselves and Wimmer that they ensured the win would be contested between just the two of them.
When the checkered flag waved, it was Earnhardt collecting his first, and to this point only, win in the sport's premier event. He was a victor by .273 seconds.
The 2006 running of the Great American Race also lacked any late-race drama.
The event was competitive throughout the day, with no driver ever dominating the action until the end of the race. Of the 18 drivers who led at least once in the race, eight of them paced the field for at least 18 circuits. The event featured 11 cautions, and 39 laps were run behind the pace car.
Following an incident involving Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton with two laps remaining, the race went into overtime, and a green-white-checkered finish was required.
After taking the lead on Lap 187, Jimmie Johnson maintained his position as the leader for the final restart. When the green flag waved, Johnson, Ryan Newman and Casey Mears put slight separation between themselves and the rest of the field.
By the time the cars had raced to the white flag, the rest of the top 10 drivers had caught the front three. Dale Earnhardt Jr., in fifth place, was the first competitor to pull out of line and try to go to the lead.
His efforts failed, and the top three once again gained slight separation.
Coming down the backstretch, Newman attempted to get to the outside of Johnson and Mears filled the hole to take second. As the cars sped out of Turn 4, the caution flag flew for Greg Biffle, and with that the race was over.
It was Johnson's first career win in the Daytona 500.
People may be more likely to remember the start to the 2013 Daytona 500 than the finish. Danica Patrick made history by becoming the first female driver to win the pole for a Sprint Cup Series event.
Patrick spent the majority of the day near the front of the field, led five laps during the race and was a factor as the field came to the checkered flag.
Jimmie Johnson led Greg Biffle and Patrick with one lap remaining. As the cars raced down the backstretch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin made a charge up the inside lane.
The duo quickly dispatched of Biffle and Patrick and worked their way to Johnson's bumper. As time was running out, Earnhardt and Martin held their positions in line as Johnson crossed the start/finish line first for his second career victory in the event.
Johnson and the race's other contenders were able to race their way back into contention after the day's dominant driver, Matt Kenseth, dropped out of the race following an engine issue.
The last 50 laps of the race featured 10 lead changes among five drivers. Johnson and Brad Keselowski swapped the lead back and forth five times in the final 15 laps, culminating when the six-time series champion took the lead with 10 laps remaining.
The 2012 Sprint Cup season started one day later than expected when rain postponed the season-opening Daytona 500. The event, originally scheduled for a typical Sunday afternoon start, moved to Monday at noon.
With rain also forecast for most of the day Monday, the race was pushed back to a 7:00 start on Monday night. It marked the first time that the Daytona 500 ran on a Monday and the first time under the lights.
Multiple times throughout the night, there was a threat that the race may not reach its scheduled distance. Rain continued to linger in the area and was around the speedway all night, but it never played a factor.
Still, NASCAR was almost forced to end the event on Lap 159.
The caution had just come out for an engine issue on David Stremme's No. 30 car. Many of the lead-lap cars pitted for what they were hoping was the final time.
As the cars ran pace laps, one of the most bizarre incidents in NASCAR history took place.
Juan Montoya lost control of his car while attempting to catch up to the field. His automobile slammed into one of the track's jet dryers. The contact destroyed Montoya's car, and the jet dryer, packed full of fuel, became engulfed in flames.
Fuel doused the track, and there were concerns that the fire would ruin a small section of the track and force NASCAR to end the race.
At the time, Dave Blaney, Landon Cassill, Tony Raines and David Gilliland made up the unlikely top four, as they had all stayed on the track while the rest of the leaders pitted.
Following a lengthy red flag for cleanup, the race resumed and ran to conclusion.
Once those four drivers made their pit stops, Matt Kenseth took the lead and never looked back. On the green-white-checkered finish, he held off the challenges of both Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and scored his second win in the Daytona 500.
Like so many Daytona 500 races have seemed to recently, the 2008 event came down to a short run following a late-race caution.
This time around, it was Jeff Burton leading the field back to the green flag. Almost instantly, he got shuffled out of line, allowing Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart to get by and into the lead.
With two laps remaining, Stewart held the lead over Penske Racing teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. They remained the top three as the field took the white flag, but by this time, from third place on back it was side-by-side racing.
When the field got to Turn 2, both Stewart and Newman went to the high side, opening the bottom of the track for Kyle Busch.
Stewart dropped back in front of Busch going down the backstretch, and it set up a side-by-side battle between Penske Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
Going into Turn 3, Penske teammates Newman and Kurt Busch shot to the lead and were able to hold off the field and score a one-two finish for their owner.
It was the first Daytona 500 win for Penske Racing on a day that was dominated by the Gibbs cars. In total, JGR cars led 134 of 200 laps, led by Busch's 86. But in the end, it was Newman who scored his first win in the 500.
Thanks to a change in the rules package, the 2011 Daytona 500 featured tandem drafting, as opposed to the traditional pack-style racing that's become synonymous with restrictor-plate tracks.
This different style of racing proved both frustrating and entertaining.
While the race had an astounding 74 lead changes, it was also marred by 16 cautions that consumed 60 laps of racing.
The end of the race needed two green-white-checkered attempts. The first such instance saw Trevor Bayne in the top spot with David Ragan to his outside. Both drivers were in search of their first career wins.
When the green flag waved, Ragan instantly dove to the bottom of the track in front of Bayne. But because he changed lanes prior to reaching the start/finish line, Ragan received the black flag and his chances of winning all but disappeared.
A second attempt at a green-white-checker finish was needed after Robbie Gordon lost control of his car and the chain reaction caused a multi-car pileup.
On the ensuing restart, Bayne and Bobby Labonte were able to gain slight separation from the pack, as the outside lane failed to keep up.
When the field came to the white flag, it was a four-car breakaway. The Bayne and Labonte tandem led Kurt Busch and Juan Montoya.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland worked their way up to the lead group and got past Busch and Montoya getting into Turn 3. By the time the cars came off Turn 4, they had also dispatched of Labonte and were directly on the bumper of race-leader Bayne.
Remaining glued to the bottom line, though, Bayne was able to hold off the hard-charging duo and score one of the most improbable wins in NASCAR history.
Bayne's first career victory came in just his second Sprint Cup Series start.
Forget that the 2010 Daytona 500 featured two lengthy red-flag delays to repair a large pothole that developed in Turns 1 and 2.
The track failure notwithstanding, 2010's season-opening event was an entertaining race. It featured 52 lead changes among 21 drivers and nine caution flags.
A crash on Lap 198 sent the race into a green-white-checkered finish. After a quick caution on the first attempt, the second try to end the race became an exciting two-lap shootout.
Kevin Harvick took the green flag as the leader with Jamie McMurray to his outside.
Thanks to a push from Greg Biffle, McMurray took the lead as the field raced down the backstretch. McMurray, Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. came to the white flag in single-file order as the rest of the pack was two abreast behind them.
As the cars raced down the backstretch for the final time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. worked his way through heavy traffic to get to McMurray's bumper. Through the final turn, Earnhardt hounded the No. 1 car but could not find a way around him.
When the checkered flag waved, it was McMurray earning his fourth career victory and easily the biggest.
This was McMurray's first race in the No. 1 car after he spent much of the previous offseason not knowing what his future would hold.
McMurray's emotional Victory Lane celebration made the event all the more memorable.
While Tony Stewart, Michael Waltrip and Jeff Gordon dominated the 2005 Daytona 500, the ending was a seven-car battle that raged on over the course of the final nine laps.
Following a late-race caution, Tony Stewart took the green flag as the leader with six laps remaining. Over the next four laps, Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Gordon swapped the lead back and forth each lap, with Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Scott Riggs and Mark Martin directly in tow.
When Kasey Kahne scraped the wall with three laps remaining, NASCAR waved the caution flag. The yellow flag set up a dramatic green-white-checkered finish.
On the restart, Gordon and Earnhardt quickly separated from the pack while everyone else was lined up two-by-two. Getting into Turn 3, Busch got around Earnhardt and slid into second place behind Gordon.
Going down the backstretch for the final time, Johnson went to the outside but got little drafting help. This allowed Gordon and Busch to put a small gap between themselves and the pack as they raced into Turn 4.
As the checkered flag fell, Gordon, Busch and Earnhardt crossed the line in single file, while Riggs, Johnson, Martin and Stewart crossed the line side-by-side in third through seventh.
The win was Gordon's third Daytona 500 victory.
Unquestionably, the best Daytona 500 of the last 10 years took place in 2007, and it is possibly the best one in history.
Driving in a part-time role and searching for his first win in the Great American Race, Mark Martin led the field as the laps wound down. With two laps remaining, he led the field to a restart. He immediately hugged the yellow line as the rest of the field lined up behind him.
When the field took the white flag, Kevin Harvick became the first driver to jump out of line from the seventh-place position.
As the cars raced down the backstretch, Harvick worked his way to third place. Second-place Kyle Busch attempted to block the No. 29 car, but the move cost him all of his momentum and allowed Harvick to get to second place.
Coming off Turn 4, Busch and Matt Kenseth, running third and fourth, made contact that sent both cars spinning. With the rest of the field crashing behind them, Martin and Harvick were left to duel for the win.
The two drivers raced cleanly and never once made contact. When they crossed the line, it was Harvick edging Martin by .020 seconds.
Behind the top two finishers, calamity continued. Cars crossed the finish line sideways and backward. One car, driven by Clint Bowyer, even crossed the line on its roof.
It was just the fourth lap that Harvick led on the day, and it came after Martin had led the previous 26 circuits.