The Daytona 500 is the most prestigious race on the NASCAR circuit, it’s NASCAR’s Superbowl. But unlike the NFL, NASCAR doesn’t make fans wait until the end of the year for its marquee event, instead it kicks off the year. The race is the first of the season for NASCAR and features week-long on-track action known as Daytona Speedweeks which includes an all-star exhibition race, practice sessions, the two Duel qualifying races and the penultimate event, the Daytona 500. Known simply as “The Great American Race,” it is the ultimate prize for NASCAR drivers, many would trade an entire career’s worth of victories for one win in the Daytona 500. You can win all the races and championships you want, but nothing gains a NASCAR driver more prestige than winning at Daytona. The Daytona 500 has featured legendary on-track battles, death-defying crashes and thrilling finishes in its 60-year history. Here are just a few of the most shocking moments in Daytona 500 history.
15. I Shouldn’t Be Alive… With Ryan Newman – 2003
The 2003 Daytona 500 was an absolute gong show. The race featured several crashes, a one-hour rain delay, and was eventually stopped after 272 miles due to a downpour and Michael Waltrip was awarded the victory. You’d think that a driver winning their second Daytona 500 would be a pretty memorable moment for fans. Unfortunately, Michael Waltrip’s thunder would be stolen by Ryan Newman’s horrific crash on lap 58. While racing in the top 15, Ward Burton and Ken Schrader made contact causing Newman’s car to hit the wall and slide into the infield grass. Newman’s car would then flip several times, spraying debris everywhere. His entire rear axle even came detached from the car during the incident. Fortunately, Newman would climb out of the car and walk away under his own power, a testament to the advancements in driver safety technology.
14. Montoya Goes Up in Flames – 2012
Like Ryan Newman’s death-defying crash in 2003, the 2012 Daytona 500 isn’t remembered for the racing. The race is best known for Juan Pablo Montoya’s unfortunate run in with a maintenance vehicle. During a caution period on lap 160, the brakes in Montoya’s No. 42 car completely died and he went barreling into an on-track jet-dryer that had been blowing debris off the racing surface. The crash resulted in an explosion causing burns to the asphalt racing surface and serious damaged to the outside wall on the track. The race would be red-flagged for one hour and 57 minutes while NASCAR officials worked to repair the track and wall area. The moment was forever immortalized by driver Brad Keselowski getting out of his car on the backstretch and running down to check out the incident and send several tweets from his phone. NASCAR would later ban drivers from carrying cell phones in their cars during a race.
13. Waltrip’s Ickey Shuffle – 1989
Three-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Darrell Waltrip had dreamed of winning the Daytona 500 as a child and had come up short in 16 prior attempts. In his 17th crack at Daytona, Waltrip and his team would take a serious gamble to try and get the win. After pitting on lap 147, Waltrip’s team decided they would not stop again and try to stretch their fuel for the remaining 53 laps and steal the victory. The gamble paid off for Waltrip and his team as they would drive to the win for Waltrip’s first, and ultimately only Daytona 500 victory. Unfortunately for Waltrip, the moment made immortal by his displays of emotion in victory lane, repeatedly asking if he actually won and saying he couldn’t believe. He capped it all off by doing a terrible rendtition of the ‘Ickey Shuffle,’ complete with a helmet spike. The event is forever engrained in NASCAR fans’ memories as one of the best in Daytona 500 history.
12. The Dale and Dale Show – 1993
The 1993 Daytona 500 featured some great racing and a thrilling finish, but it is remembered more for a proud father cheering on his son. Ned Jarrett, a former driver and father of Dale Jarrett was working as a commentator for CBS Sports’ coverage of the 1993 Daytona 500. Commentators are taught from very early on to remain unbiased, or try their best to hide any bias them may have. This rule was thrown out the window when Ned watched his son come off the final turn battling the great Dale Earnhardt for the win. The moment is fondly remembered for Ned’s classic piece of commentary: “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 gonna make it! Dale Jarrett’s gonna win the Daytona 500.” Although Ned received criticism from fans and journalists for his biased cheering on a national broadcast, can you really blame him for wanting to see his son win?
11. Right Place, Right Time – 1990
For much of the 1990 Daytona 500, it looked like Dale Earnhardt would get his first win in The Great American Race. He had a dominant car for much of the day and led the race as the white flag flew. As Earnhardt drove down the backstretch on the final lap, he made contact with a piece of debris from a prior incident and shredded his right rear tire. This allowed for one of the greatest upsets in NASCAR history, as little-known driver Derrike Cope would cruise by Earnhardt and take the victory, his first in NASCAR. It was a true example of being in the right place at the right time as Cope’s best finish in NASCAR had been a sixth and he’d had little success in the series. The win gave Cope instant credibility and to this day he is still riding the on the coattails of this lone bright spot in his NASCAR career.
10. Danica Makes Her Mark – 2013
Danica Patrick is one of NASCAR’s most polarizing figures. Her career has been both adored and criticized by race fans. Many see her as a great driver, blazing a trail for other women drivers, and some see her as a marketing machine with little talent. Say what you want about Danica Patrick, but she has accomplished something that hundreds of drivers both male and female haven’t, she’s won the Pole for the Daytona 500. In 2013, Danica Patrick had the fastest car throughout Daytona Speedweeks. She was at the top of the practice charts and would wind up winning the Pole Position in qualifying. Sure, you could argue that Daytona is one of the easiest tracks to get the Pole. The cars run wide open and it usually just goes to whoever has the fastest car, as little effort is needed to wheel the car around 2.5-mile Superspeedway. Regardless, Patrick drove her car faster than anyone else in qualifying and got to lead the field to the green flag. Patrick’s accomplishment was a huge step for female drivers in motorsports, and helped break down the barriers that women face in male-dominated sport.
9. Photo Finish – 2007
In 2007, NASCAR mainstay Mark Martin scaled back his racing schedule with the plan of retiring in the near future. But this didn’t stop Martin from being one of the most competitive drivers at that year’s Daytona 500. Martin would find himself racing for the lead on the final lap with Kevin Harvick. As they entered turn three, Harvick made a move to the outside of Martin and they raced side-by-side down the final straightaway. As they approached the finish line, the rest of the field wrecking behind the finishers in spectacular fashion, including Clint Bowyer’s car sliding across the finish line upside down. Harvick was able to pull ahead by a bumper and take the win by 0.020 of a second. This would be the closest finish in Daytona 500 history and one of the race’s most breathtaking moments.
8. The Allisons Finish 1 and 2 – 1988
The Allison family name is synonymous with NASCAR. Brothers Bobby and Donnie raced throughout the 1970s and 80s to multiple race wins. Bobby would also win the 1983 Championship. Bobby’s son Davey would start racing alongside his father in 1985, but their most memorable moment together would come in the 1988 Daytona 500. Bobby and Davey would race in the top ten the majority of the day, with Bobby leading 70 of the races 200 laps. In the waning laps, it was Bobby and his son racing for the victory. Davey wouldn’t be able to pass his more experienced father and would settle for second, giving Bobby his third Daytona 500 victory. The victory would make Bobby Allison the oldest winner in the history of the race at 50 years of age. The finish was also the only time a father and son finished first and second at Daytona.
7. Petty Wins His Seventh – 1981
It’s simple, Richard Petty is the best driver in NASCAR history. No other driver will ever come close to his 200 modern-era wins and his seven championships have matched by only Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. Petty’s list of career accolades also includes seven Daytona 500 victories. That’s right, SEVEN. Petty ran the Great American Race 32 times and drove in to victory lane in seven of them including back to back wins…twice. In 1981, Petty would earn his seventh and final Daytona 500 win in 1981 by a margin of 3.5 seconds over Bobby Allison, who had dominated the better part of the race. This win gave Petty the distinction of being the only driver to win the Daytona 500 in three different decades. Oh yeah, and the only driver to win the thing SEVEN TIMES.
6. The Original Photo Finish – 1959
This list wouldn’t be complete without the first official running of the Daytona 500 in 1959. The race featured several drivers that would become NASCAR legends including Lee and Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett, Buck Baker and David Pearson. The race would come down to Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp battling for the win as the only cars on the lead lap. Petty and Beauchamp would race side by for the final lap, but Lee Petty would win the race…except he wouldn’t. The race marshals awarded Beauchamp the win and he celebrated in victory lane. Petty protested, claiming he had won by “At least two feet.” This prompted NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. to investigate the finish. With the help of a clear photograph showing Petty crossing the finish line first, France awarded Lee Petty the victory three days later making this the first ever ‘Photo Finish” in NASCAR history.
5. Trevor Bayne’s Unlikely Upset – 2011
At the start of Daytona Speedweeks in 2011, it became clear that Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 car may be the car to beat. Their driver Trevor Bayne, however had little experience in a NASCAR Cup Series car, with only one previous start in his career. He was also only 20 years only, in fact he was just 20 years and one-day old on the day of the race. As the race unfolded, Bayne’s was in the top ten for most of the day and inherited the lead under a caution before the final restart after David Ragan was black flagged for an illegal move. Bayne was able to hold off a charging Bobby Labonte and David Gilliland to pull off what is arguably the greatest upset in NASCAR history. To this day, the 2011 Daytona 500 is still Trevor Bayne’s only career win, but his name is still forever synonymous with Daytona.
4. Dale Earnhardt Finally Wins – 1998
The Daytona 500 is the ultimate prize for NASCAR drivers. Every young driver grows up with the dream of crossing the finish lane and claiming the victory at Daytona. This dream was no different for Dale Eanrhardt. The seven-time champion came close to the victory so many times and experienced so many heart breaking finishes at the Great American Race. In 1998, he’d take the monkey off his back and get his first, and ultimately only Daytona 500 win. The win was a special moment not only for Earnhardt, but for the entire NASCAR family. On his victory lap, members of every crew on pit road came out and formed a massive line for high fives as the Intimidator made his way to victory lane.
3. The Silver Fox Beats the King – 1976
In a case of two of the greatest nicknames in auto racing, 1976 saw the Silver Fox (David Pearson) and the King (Richard Petty) involved in one of the greatest Daytona 500 finishes. While most of the race was dominated by Indycar legend A.J. Foyt, who led 66 laps, the final lap came down to a battle between Pearson and Petty. Pearson made a move on the backstretch and took the lead from Petty heading in to turn three. Petty then made the classic crossover move and tried to pass back underneath Pearson in the final corner but the two cars made contact, spinning them both into the infield grass. While Petty’s car wouldn’t get going, Pearson was able to limp away in his No. 21 Wood Brothers car and just make it across the finish line to take the checkered flag.
2. The Fight: Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison – 1979
NASCAR isn’t known for having a lot of fights. Sure, drivers have tempers just like anyone else which leads to rough racing, bumping other drivers, and the occasional shoving match. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison’s throwdown in the 1979 Daytona 500 puts any other NASCAR fight to shame. 1979 was the first year that the Daytona 500 was ever broadcast in its entirety in the United States and it’s almost like Yarborough and Allison felt that they needed to add some extra excitement for the audience watching at home. While fighting for the lead on the final lap of the race, Yarborough and Allison collided on the backstretch, causing major damage to their cars. This allowed Richard Petty, who had been some distance behind to pass them both and claim his sixth Daytona 500 victory. While Petty was popping champagne in victory lane, Yarborough and Allison got out of their cars on the backstretch and started throwing haymakers, each blaming the other for the wreck.
1. Dale Earnhardt’s Fatal Crash – 2001
On February 18, 2001, the racing world lost one of its all time greats. Dale Earnhardt’s fatal, last lap crash is without a doubt the most shocking moment in the history of The Great American Race. On the final lap of the race, Earnhardt found himself in the third position, just behind his son Dale Earnhardt Jr, and the leader Michael Waltrip. While entering turn four, Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin made light contact which sent Earnhardt out of control and sliding down the track into the oncoming car of Ken Schrader. Earnhardt was killed instantly. This tragic event will forever mar the Daytona 500 and is often one of the first topics of discuss when someone mentions the race. Although a racing legend was lost forever in this fatal crash, many advancements in driver safety, particularly the now-mandatory HANS device were introduced in the years that followed and NASCAR has not had a fatality since.