On Feb. 22, 1959, the first Daytona 500 took place in front of what was then a rather large crowd of 41,921. That first race was called the "500-Mile International Sweepstakes," and it paid out just over $67,000 in prize money—which, back then, was a large purse for an auto race.
Today, the Great American Race, as it is now known, draws crowds of more than 200,000 and is seen live on television and online around the world by millions of race fans. And the payout, well, it's quite a bit more these days.
For 55 years, the Daytona 500 has stood as NASCAR's premier event, and along the way, the racing has produced some very memorable moments. Some of those moments have been exhilarating. Others have been downright devastating.
I'll admit that it's difficult to pick 10 races that stand out among the 54 that have been contested, because NASCAR is a sport that creates memories with every lap. Some of the races in this top 10 are obvious, while others might be up for discussion.
Take a walk through NASCAR history with 10 of the most memorable Daytona 500 races.
10. 1959: Lee Petty Wins Inaugural Race in Photo Finish
When the checkered flag flew on the first Daytona 500, the cars of Johnny Beauchamp, Lee Petty and Joe Weatherly crossed the start/finish so close together that officials could not determine who had won the race.
Petty and Beauchamp had battled in the final laps of the race, and as the duo came out of Turn 4, Weatherly's lapped car joined them and the trio headed to the start/finish. They crossed the finish line in a photo finish—Beauchamp on the bottom, Petty in the middle and Weatherly on top.
Beauchamp celebrated the first 500 in Victory Lane. However, NASCAR officials, including series founder Bill France Sr., reviewed newsreel footage and photographs of the finish, and three days later, Petty was declared the race winner.
NASCAR had a steadfast rule back then that remains in effect today: When race fans leave the track, they know who the winner is. The Petty/Beauchamp finish was the only time in NASCAR history when the outcome of the race was changed after the fans had left the track.
This explains why, today, NASCAR does not take away wins despite serious rule infractions found after the race has ended.
9. 1976: Petty and Pearson Wreck
Richard Petty and David Pearson were arguably NASCAR’s two best drivers in 1976, so it wasn’t unusual to find the two racing for the win on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Pearson got around Petty on the backstretch, but as the two raced off Turn 4, Petty tried a slingshot move under Pearson. He didn't quite clear him. Their cars touched, and it sent both Petty and Pearson spinning into the infield grass that separated pit road from the tri-oval.
Petty's car would not start after the contact. Pearson kept his car running and slowly inched it over the finish line on the shoulder for the win, his only Daytona 500 victory.
8. 1988: Restrictor-Plate Era Begins; Allison Family Affair
The 1988 Daytona 500 marked the beginning of the restrictor-plate era in stock car racing.
After Bobby Allison's Buick went airborne and nearly ended up in the grandstands of Talladega Superspeedway in May 1987, NASCAR introduced first smaller carburetors and then restrictor plates to its engines in an effort to slow the cars down.
Allison came to Daytona in 1988 at 50 years of age and in the twilight of his career. Both he and son Davey qualified for the 500. Few had expected the elder Allison to be a factor in the race, but he started third and led the race seven times for a total of 70 laps, including the final 18. Davey, who qualified on the front row, also led the race and ran with the leaders for much of the afternoon.
As the laps wound down, Bobby looked into his rearview mirror to see his son a few car lengths behind him. Despite having a better car, the younger Allison was no match for his father's experience on the superspeedways, and Bobby held his son off to win his third (1978, '82) Daytona 500.
It would turn out to be his final NASCAR win. Four months later, Bobby suffered life-threatening injuries in a first-lap wreck at Pocono Raceway. After months of rehabilitation, his injuries were so severe that Allison's memory never returned. To this day, he has no recollection of the 1988 Daytona 500.
7. 1989: An Emotion Filled Day as Darrell Waltrip Finally Wins
Most NASCAR fans remember Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s run of bad luck in the Daytona 500. However, Darrell Waltrip, the favorite son of Owensboro, Ky., brought a 16-race losing streak of his own into the 1989 Daytona 500.
Driving for team owner Rick Hendrick, Waltrip was once again considered among the favorites to win the race. This time, he and crew chief Jeff Hammond had a different strategy for winning: use the draft and save fuel.
During the race, most teams could do no better than 45 laps before having to make a pit stop for fuel. Waltrip was able to extend that on each run throughout the afternoon. After his final pit stop, he was able to get an amazing 53 laps out of a tank of fuel by running a bit slower than the other cars and by drafting every chance he got.
After taking the checkers, an emotional Waltrip climbed out of his car and inquired incredulously as to whether or not he had just won the Daytona 500 with CBS Sports announcer Mike Joy.
"I won the Daytona 500!" Waltrip exclaimed. Then, half seriously he asked Joy,"This is the Daytona 500?" "You bet it is," Joy replied.
In an homage to then Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods, Waltrip spiked his helmet and did his own version of the running back's post-touchdown end-zone dance, the Ickey Shuffle.
6. 1990: Derrike Cope Wins as Earnhardt Has Tire Woes
After dominating the 1990 Daytona 500 by leading 155 of 200 laps, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was clearly the driver to beat.
He took the white flag with Derrike Cope in second place right behind him. As he exited Turn 3, Earnhardt's iconic black Chevrolet suddenly slowed and swerved toward the outside wall. Cope drove around him and took both the race lead and the checkered flag.
Cope's win was the first of two career NASCAR victories, and it came in only his third Daytona 500 start.
It was later determined that Earnhardt had run over a piece of debris that cut his right rear tire. Thus began nearly a decade of bad luck in the 500 for The Intimidator.
5. 1998: Earnhardt Finally Wins His Daytona 500
In 19 years of racing at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt had won at nearly every race imaginable that was contested within the walls of the famed 2.5-mile superspeedway: two of the summertime 400-mile races, 11 Daytona qualifiers, seven Nationwide Series races and more.
However, the track's NASCAR season opener, the Daytona 500, remained out of reach.
Here was the winner of seven Cup titles with a big fat zero under the Daytona 500 win column on his resume. Maybe it was a flat tire, an ill-timed caution or a late-race unscheduled pit stop that did him in. No matter what it was, there was something.
That is, until the 1998 Daytona 500.
There would be no flat tire this time. No late-race caution or unscheduled pit stop that would prevent Earnhardt from winning his first and only Daytona 500.
Although he was called The Intimidator by his fellow competitors, Earnhardt was respected by everyone in the garage. As a sign of that respect, rival team members lined up on pit road to slap palms as Earnhardt drove slowly toward the speedway's Victory Lane.
4. 1993: The Dale and Dale Show
Second-generation racer Dale Jarrett was beginning his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing when he came to Daytona International Speedway in February 1993. Despite qualifying second behind pole winner Kyle Petty, there was little reason to believe Jarrett and crew chief Jimmy Makar would be factors in the Daytona 500.
On race day, Jarrett ran up front with the race leaders for a good deal of the second half of the race. As laps wound down, the race appeared to be a battle between veteran Dale Earnhardt Sr. and newcomer Jeff Gordon.
But suddenly, Jarrett found himself at the front after a push by Geoffrey Bodine.
As the final laps unfolded, Jarrett's father, Ned, a two-time Cup champion and color commentator for the CBS television broadcast, began to talk his son into Victory Lane.
"Come on, Dale. Go, baby, go. All right, come on. I know he’s got it to the floorboard. He can’t do anymore. Come on. Take her to the inside.
"Don’t let him (Earnhardt) get on the inside of you coming around this turn. Here he comes, Earnhardt. It's the 'Dale and Dale Show,' as we come off Turn 4. You know who I'm pulling for, it's Dale Jarrett. Bring her to the inside, Dale. Don't let him get down there.
"He's going to make it! Dale Jarrett's going to win the Daytona 500!”
An emotional Ned Jarrett smiled and broke out in tears on national television as he watched his son cross the finish line. Dale kept both Earnhardt and Gordon at bay as he battled to win his first of three (1993, '96, 2000) victories in the Daytona 500.
3. 2007: Harvick Edges out Martin in Closest Finish Ever
2007 was a year of change for Kevin Harvick, bringing with it a new sponsor and, after he won the Nationwide title the previous year, a more dedicated focus on Cup racing.
Harvick began the weekend of the 2007 Daytona 500 by winning his first career restrictor-plate race, claiming victory in Saturday's Nationwide Series race. But throughout Speedweeks, his Sprint Cup car was not among the fastest cars on the 2.5-mile-high banks.
Harvick qualified 34th for the Daytona 500, the worst starting position by a race winner. He tied the record for the fewest laps led (four, with Bennie Parsons) en route to the closest margin of victory in race history—0.20 seconds over Mark Martin.
Critics charge that when a big wreck occurred on the final lap, Martin was in the lead. But NASCAR officials did not display the yellow caution flag until after Harvick and Martin, racing for the lead, had both crossed the finish line, with Harvick in front.
It was Harvick's first restrictor-plate win in a Cup car.
2. 1979: Petty Wins, but the Story Is the Yarborough-Allison Fight
Perhaps the most famous and memorable of all Daytona 500 finishes, the 1979 win by Richard Petty (his sixth), is best known for the fight that broke out on live television between drivers Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough after Petty took the checkered flag.
Most of the Northeast and Midwestern parts of the United States were buried beneath a tremendous snowstorm the weekend of the 1979 Daytona 500. As a result, the viewing audience was much larger than anticipated for the first live broadcast of a 500-mile race on CBS.
The aftermath of the fight sparked an interest in NASCAR, which had been a relatively unknown auto racing series that grew out of the heritage of illegal liquor runners in the South.
Of note: The 1979 race was also the first time that the in-car camera was used.
1. 2001: Dale Earnhardt's Death Changes NASCAR Forever
It was the day that changed everything for NASCAR.
Michael Waltrip won the race, but it was the death of his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Sr., that sent shock waves across the entire nation.
Fans had seen Senior roll his car down the front straightaway of Talladega Superspeedway, emerging from its battered remains bruised and bloody, only to race just a week later—albeit for one lap before Mike Skinner took his place. And they'd seen him involved in other, less spectacular wrecks, after which The Intimidator would joke about his predicament.
So they expected nothing less from his wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
However, this time, there was no dropping of the window net, a sign designated by NASCAR regulation for a driver to signal that he is OK after suffering a wreck.
The national television audience, along with 200,000 fans in the stands, held its collective breath as emergency crews worked feverishly to get Earnhardt out of his crumpled race car.
Hours later, the racing world would learn that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had lost his life on the race track that meant so much to him during his career.
His death led to a revolution in racing safety, and as of this date, no other driver has lost his or her life in a Sprint Cup race car.