Five Great Races from Daytona 500 History [w/ video]
There are auto races, and there are Auto Races. And then there is the Daytona 500. As the official kickoff to the NASCAR season, it has long been regarded (and rightfully so) as the ultimate American racing event. In honor of the 2014 race, here’s a look at five great 500s from the past. 1989
“It aint braggin’ if you can do it” is one of Darrel Waltrip’s favorite lines, one he used in response to those who questioned his constant self-accolades. Nonetheless, back in ’89 Waltrip did indeed prove he could “do it” by beating second place Ken Schrader by 7.64 seconds.
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Both Schrader and 3rd place finisher Dale Earnhardt later questioned what kind of fuel Waltrip was running in that Chevrolet. This didn’t keep the Tennessee racer and self-esteem aficionado from sharing his excitement at the win. “This is the race everybody will always remember,” he said. He was right.
What could be better than a dead-heat finish to top off the very first 500? Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp slugged it out lap after lap, until they both crossed the finish line almost simultaneously. The result threw NASCAR officials and the public into a tailspin.
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Bill France, Sr. took it upon himself to declare a winner, which he did after three days of studying the photos. The result: Petty won by an estimated two feet. To this day there are those who question the decision, but the verdict remains.
The meek have yet to inherit the earth, but if the ’79 500 proves anything, it’s that swollen egos and too much swaggering can cost you big-time when then chips are down. Most of the race was a battle royale between brothers Donnie and Bobby Allison and brash football player Cale Yarborough. Tempers were running high and so were testosterone levels.
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Donnie and Cale collided while going into the final lap, sending both cars spinning into the infield. Bobby, like a good brother should, stopped to check on his sibling. When he tried to extend this same kindness to Yarborough, however, the result was a different kind of battle, one involving fists and lots of unsavory words.
Meanwhile, Richard Petty, sensing his opportunity, took his Oldsmobile across the finish line, beating the second place driver by a full car length. Later on he expressed his regret at not taking a moment to witness the melee between Yarborough and Allison. “I’d liked to have stopped and watched,” he said. “It looked pretty excitin’.”
As ‘79s race shows, NASCAR wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if it wasn’t for the feuds between drivers. In the Year of America’s Bicentennial all the talk centered on the rivalry between Richard Petty and David Pearson, the “Silver Fox.” When race day came the pair didn’t disappoint. They were nearing the finish line when their cars collided, sending both careening out of control into the wall.
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The wreck trashed both vehicles, but Pearson got his mangled Mercury to limp across the line at around 30 mph, while Petty’s ride just couldn’t make those final 20 yards. Person went on to pocket $46,000.00, along with bragging rights for winning what was perhaps the most exciting Daytona 500 ever.
In the late 1990s, Dale Earnhardt was like Sylvester Stallone’s character after the first Rocky movie: tough and respected but without his sport’s ultimate prize. Before ’98 he had raced in the 500 19 times. Each time he was beaten out, either by the competition or by blown tires and empty gas tanks.
With a single lap to go, Petty was in the lead when rival john Andretti crashed. The caution flag went out, the contest ground to a halt, and Earnhardt, who had led over the past 61 laps, was declared the winner. His single word upon exiting the Chevrolet said it all: “finally.”
Image Sources: Floridastockcars.com, ESPN