Unleash the Beasts: 52nd Daytona 500 Could Be NASCAR's Wildest

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Unleash the Beasts: 52nd Daytona 500 Could Be NASCAR's Wildest
Jason Smith/Getty Images

Every sport seems to have that pinnacle event that draws out the prestige and spectacle of its athletes and participants. The NFL had its biggest game last Sunday with Super Bowl XLVI in Miami, FL, featuring a rare matchup between the league's No. 1 seeds in what became the most watched American program of all-time.

Just in nearby Daytona Beach, the NASCAR Sprint Cup gang has its biggest show of the year in the form of "The Great American Race" aptly called the Daytona 500 (Live, Sunday, 1 PM/EST on FOX). It is the ultimate showcase of stock car's best drivers duking it out around the high-banked, 2.5-mile super speedway for three hours of white-knuckle action.

Given its nickname by former CBS Sports' Ken Squier, this generation's "Dean of Motorsports," it is a race that has tested the mettle of many of the sport's most prolific racers. Sheer determination, miracles, domination, and devastating finishes are some of the elements that have comprised NASCAR's crown jewel showcase.

Sentimental stories have been a part of the race, with a father and son finishing one-two in the 1988 Daytona 500. Bobby Allison, one of the sport's pioneers and legends, held off his hard-charging son, Davey, in a memorable finish that has been since dubbed as "Allison Wonderland."

Regardless of whom fans cheered for on that day, it was one of those moments that made those at the track and in living rooms across America feel a bit emotional with the family factor. It was a finish that the late Davey Allison marked as one of his favorite moments in his short but remarkable career.

Just imagine having to race your father for the victory—emotions and thoughts will fly high and fast as a lap around the track itself. Certainly, the race finish left the TV executives happy and about everyone else at the facility and at homes feeling heart-warmed during Valentine's Day of 1988.

For those who are of the boxing variety, 1979's finish and post-race ceremonies had more fists thrown than a Pacquiao-Mayweather fight (oh wait, that never happened). Typical sports fans who often resort to the "it's just cars racing around in circles" talk would probably be eating their words by just watching the race's finish and checkered-flag frakus that ensued between turns three and four.

Old and new-school fans associate the 21st running of "The Great American Race" as the one dubbed as "A Donniebrook in Daytona," in which the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby, exchanged punches and words with Cale Yarborough. 

On the last lap of that year's 500, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were several seconds ahead of third-place runner Richard Petty, who was staving off the advances of Darrell Waltrip and IndyCar legend A.J. Foyt. As the top-two raced their way down the backstretch, their Chevrolet Monte Carlo machines suddenly swapped paint and banged fenders until both made contact with the wall.

Allison and Yarborough would then find themselves spinning wildly into the grass between turns three and four, effectively eliminating them from the finish. Suddenly, it became Richard Petty's race to lose, a victory that seemed impossible considering the lengthy deficit between himself and the top-two contenders.

Nevertheless, Petty drove by the wounded cars and held off Darrell Waltrip and A.J. Foyt to take home his sixth "Great American Race" victory. As for Allison and Yarborough, it became quite the scene when fists flew and frustration was vented out in front of millions of Americans watching the event on CBS Sports.

That race put NASCAR racing on the map of relevancy, or at least paved the way for it to become a weekly circus for television audiences to watch for ten months. Drama, excitement, and action could be found in these events, especially with the Daytona 500.

Perhaps no other Daytona 500 had as much emotion and sentimental memories as the 1998 running, a race that has since been chronicled by journalists, racers, crew members, and fans as one that "everyone had won." All the makings of a classic and memorable race were all there with this running of the "Super Bowl of NASCAR."

First of all, it was the 50th season of the sport, which was a remarkable accomplishment given the history of this brand of stock car racing. Secondly, it was a race for which its defending champion was re-defining the identity and image of the sport as a young gun and two-time series titlist with a very visible racecar.

Most importantly, it was the 20th attempt for seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt to conquer this beast of a race. About every unforeseeable force seemingly stopped "The Intimidator" from ever reaching this facility's hallowed ground of Victory Lane. It didn't matter if his car was dominant—he would just get beat on the final lap.

Even if he was going on the right pit strategy in an attempt to win the race, he would somehow lose the race like in the 1995 edition, when even four fresh tires weren't enough to pass Sterling Marlin for the victory.

To say the least, no one could blame Earnhardt for feeling a bit skeptical at his chance to win in spite of the fact that he had the class of the field. Nearly bulletproof from start to finish, it seemed like it was the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy's day to finally check off one of its final goals as a storied team.

Challengers tried as they might, either in the pits or on the track, to derail Earnhardt from taking the checkers on that day. Teammates Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield tried to mount a charge on that familiar black and grey mount, but even strength in numbers weren't enough to defeat "The Man In Black" at his best.

Just as John Elway of the Denver Broncos got the monkey off his back by winning Super Bowl XXXII, Earnhardt finally captured his greatest prize as a racer and a man. No matter what the stock car legend accomplished for the rest of his career, it was that moment on Feb. 15, 1998 that immortalized him as a true motorsports icon.

Sadly, that same event would take his life three years later, in a race that had as much excitement and drama with lead changes, on-track action, and positions swapping essentially every lap. Some fans have not watched the 2001 Daytona 500 since the actual date of the race, while others have viewed it in memory of the fallen racer.

Tarnished and marred by Earnhardt's final lap tragedy, the 42nd 500-miler had a new feeling to the event. It would be the first race in the "new era of TV networks," where FOX Sports took over coverage of this event from CBS and the stock car scene was reinvigorated with an influx of young talent mixing it up with the sport's established stars and veterans.

Lead changes and on-track action was about as exciting as it got, with a huge train of cars circling the mammoth speedway nearly every lap in three to four-wide formations. It was NASCAR's version of a Vegas crap shoot for a win, as it was difficult to even predict a winner from the huge pack of cars going at it for the prestigious race victory.

Wrecks highlighted this race, with the wild racing resulting in a memorable accident near the closing stages of the finish. Contenders like Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Jarrett were eliminated by the melee down the back-straightaway, with Stewart's machine going for a memorable upside-down ride in front of a gaggle of cars.

Fortunately, those drivers were cleared by the infield medical center, gaining nothing more than bruised egos and twisted sheet metal from their Daytona 500 experience.

Unfortunately, the same could not have been said for Earnhardt. Dodging the wreck in one of his final displays of his remarkable driving skills, "Old Ironhead" decided to play defense during the final laps, protecting his position for the top-two cars driven by his team racer in Michael Waltrip and his son, Dale Junior.

However, drivers were jockying for a good finish down the stretch, and Sterling Marlin was trying his best to bring home a top-three showing for Dodge's first race back in Cup racing since 1981. Marlin's car had a run in the final corners of the track on the last lap, ready to make a pass on Earnhardt.

Fenders met, and the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevy lost control, going down the apron until it broke loose and crashed head-on to the wall with top-five runner Ken Schrader essentially t-boning his machine into the passenger side of the battered car.

Though rather pedestrian on replays, there was a sense of urgency following the last lap accident. While euphoria broke out when Waltrip crossed the line en-route to his first career Cup win, FOX Sports color commentator Darrell Waltrip (Michael's brother) knew that all was not right surrounding the Earnhardt machine.

"Is he ok? I hope he's ok! He's gotta be ok," Waltrip said over the air with worry.

In a bitter twist of irony, the race and track that Earnhardt seemed to love competing at was the one that took his life away too soon at age 49. From that day on, it was as if NASCAR had to dig deep and find its new identity and its main icon among many stars.

All was not lost following the 2001 Daytona 500, and the sport, though challenged and struggling at times, has carried on and established new stars like Kurt and Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, and Jimmie Johnson, the most successful "new era" driver of the 2000s thus far.

For some reason, the anticipation surrounding this year's 500 has the feel and excitement of 1979, 1988, and 2001. Perhaps we'll see a family affair with the Busch brothers heading to the stripe for the victory. As to which sibling will win, either Kurt or Kyle would relish their wins in their unique ways.

Maybe it'll be a last-lap duel in which the unexpected happens, with the dominant racers of the day taking themselves out, paving the way for a legend to take the checkers. It would be something to see someone like Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte, or Jeff Gordon take home the win in such fashion.

Hopefully, as wild and crazy as this week's action of racing will be, with the ban on bump-drafting lifted and the teams and drivers honing down their Car of Tomorrow (or Today) machines to their finest condition, the tragedy of 2001 will not be repeated this year. About everyone who has some interest in the 2010 edition will agree that a safe race would be at the top of the priority list.

Speedweeks 2010 has seen its share of storylines, from females making their presence known in the ARCA Re/Max season opener to a driver, stricken by flu-like symptoms prior to the Budweiser Shootout, taking home the checkers in front of the turn two mayhem that decimated the field's strongest runners.

Could it finally be the year that fan favorite Mark Martin takes home his first Daytona 500? If it is, we'll have probably screamed out, "Go Daddy!" to our TV screens on Valentine's Day.

Drivers who went the 2009 season winless will be hungry and ready to do about anything it takes to put a "W" back in their career statistics following the 200-lap contest. Perhaps Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, or Carl Edwards will put an end to their long winless streaks.

Whoever wins it all, it is guaranteed to be about the wildest racing that fans will see in a long time. There will be no shortage of excitement, as drivers will race along the yellow-line or just against the walls adorned with the track's name "Daytona."

It's strap 'em up and go time come Valentine's Day 2010. Let the lovers quarrel and the sheet metals fly. Daytona 500 time is nearly here, and it will certainly be out of sight at the speed of daylight!

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