They say that if you want to watch a basketball game, just watch the last two minutes. All the action and excitement usually comes down to that last two minutes. The same is somewhat true for NASCAR. If you want to see the exciting part, just watch the final few laps. That isn’t always true, of course, but in the case of the 15 finishes presented below, it was definitely the case. Close finishes are what makes NASCAR great. No one wants to watch Jimmie Johnson drive away from the field and win by half a lap… well, other than maybe Jimmie Johnson fans. Most fans want to see two drivers beating and banging down the final straightaway and for a driver to win by the closest of margins.
In 1993, NASCAR starting using electronic timing and scoring. This meant that transponders were put on each car and at intervals around the race track to give live updates on the time intervals between cars on the track. You could throw out your stopwatch and just look at a computer screen to see a driver’s lap times. This new electronic scoring system has aided in the way NASCAR makes rulings on races. In many cases, finishes have been so close that simply looking at a photo of the finish isn’t enough to discern who won. Since then, over twenty races have had a margin of victory of less than one, one hundredth of a second. Here are the 15 closest NASCAR finishes.
15. Lee Petty – Daytona 1959
It had to make the list. Regardless of whether the aforementioned electronic timing and scoring had been invented yet (it obviously had not), this list wouldn’t be complete without the race known simply as “The Photo Finish.” Yes, it is impossible to know the exact margin of victory that Lee Petty won the 1959 Daytona 500 by. However, what this finish did for the sport was remarkable. It made NASCAR national news in the United States and was the first controversial finish in the sport’s history.
At the 1959 Daytona 500, Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp would be the only drivers still on the lead lap at the end of the race. They would battle for the last 30 laps and on the final lap would cross the finish line side-by-side. NASCAR awarded Beauchamp the victory, but Petty protested. It wasn’t until three days later that NASCAR President Bill France Sr. named Petty the winner after looking at photographs and newsreel footage of the finish. The win was so close it took THREE DAYS to call.
Now, if you actually look at the photograph, it doesn’t look that close. Petty beat Beauchamp by roughly half a car length. Nowadays NASCAR’s sanctioning body is aided by electronic scoring, dozens of spotters, automatic timing loops, and other technological advancements. The fact that the race steward actually awarded the 1959 Daytona 500 victory to the wrong driver proves just how close this finish really was to the naked eye. Lee Petty’s victory in the inaugural Daytona 500 will forever be one of NASCAR’s closest finishes.
14. Ron Hornaday – Atlanta 2005 – 0.008 Seconds
Ron Hornaday made a living racing in NASCAR’s Truck Series. He would win four Truck Series championships in his career and 51 total races. But no win was more thrilling for Hornaday than the 2005 World Financial Group 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The race would come down to a two lap battle between Hornaday and NASCAR Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte.
On the final lap, Labonte would move to the high side of the racetrack to gain some momentum and get beside Hornaday as they headed down the backstretch. As they entered turn three, the two drivers would be neck and neck. Labonte would pull slightly ahead as they drove down the front stretch, but Hornaday would make one final surge and pull ahead by a bumper to take the victory. Hornaday would win by just eight one-thousandths of a second, forcing Labonte to wait a few more weeks for his first Truck Series win.
13. Tony Stewart – Daytona 2011 – 0.007 Seconds
Tony Stewart had an unprecedented run of dominance in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Daytona. From 2005 to 2013, Stewart won the season-opening race at Daytona seven times. SEVEN TIMES! The only year he didn’t win was 2007. In 2011, he’d win Daytona by his closest margin ever. In the 2011 DRIVE4COPD 300, Stewart was part of an eight-car breakaway on the final lap. Heading into turn two, Joey Logano would brush the wall, taking he and teammate Kyle Busch out of the fight.
As the six remaining cars came out of turn four, Clint Bowyer was being pushed from behind by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he seemed to be destined for the win. Stewart pulled to the outside of the two lead cars and with a push from fourth-place driver Landon Cassill, he was able to get alongside Bowyer and ultimately get a bumper in front of him for the win. In real time it honestly looked as though Bowyer had won, but a photo finish would show that Stewart had beaten him by just seven one-thousandths of a second.
12. Terry Labonte – Richmond 1995 – 0.006 Seconds
The inaugural season for NASCAR’s Truck Series was in 1995, then known as the “Supertruck Series.” Naturally, this was an intriguing development for a lot of NASCAR veterans. Many wanted to try their hand at racing a pickup truck-style chassis, while others simply thought of it as a gimmick. Terry Labonte would be one of the first Cup Series regulars to attempt racing the trucks.
At Richmond in 1995, Labonte would get a taste of the kind of racing fans would come to expect from the Truck Series. A late-race caution flag period would set up Labonte up for a battle with fellow Cup Series regular Geoff Bodine. Labonte would be the leader at the final restart, but Bodine would get inside him as the white flag flew. The two raced side-by-side for the final lap but Labonte was able to surge past Bodine as they took the checkered flag. Labonte would win by just six one-thousandths of a second. It was finishes like this that helped make the Truck Series the successful entity it is today.
11. Kevin Harvick – Atlanta 2001 – 0.006 Seconds
The year 2001 was a solemn one in NASCAR. It was the year that the sport would lose Dale Earnhardt in a fatal crash at the Daytona 500. But just three races later, Earnhardt’s memory would be honored in a way no one thought possible. In the weeks after Earnhardt’s death, driver Kevin Harvick took over his car, now renumbered 29 and painted in a white paint scheme instead of Earnhardt’s classic black. Harvick was still relatively new to NASCAR and clearly had big shoes to fill.
In the fourth race of the season in Atlanta, Harvick would be racing for the victory with Jeff Gordon. Entering the final corner, Gordon would dive to the bottom of the race track and get inside of Harvick in attempt to drag race with him to the finish line. Harvick would have enough momentum to stay in front of Gordon and win the race by six one-thousandths of a second. The victory would be Harvick’s first in the series and one of NASCAR’s greatest upsets. It would be an emotional win for Harvick and he would do a burnout in celebration while holding three fingers in the air to honor the late, great Dale Earnhardt.
10. Kasey Kahne – Charlotte 2015 – 0.005 Seconds
NASCAR Cup Series regular Kasey Kahne has only driven in six Truck Series races in his career. But here’s the crazy part: He’s won FIVE OF THEM. And the only one he didn’t win? He finished second. That is an absolutely ridiculous run of dominance. In 2015, Kahne would find himself in the closest battle of his career at the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte.
A late race caution would set up the ever-so-popular “Green-White-Checkered Finish.” It’s NASCAR’s version of overtime. Essentially if a caution flag comes out with few laps remaining, this overtime rule prevents the race from ending under caution, with the leader simply driving around the pace car and being awarded a victory.
This installment of NASCAR overtime would set up the veteran Kahne against young-gun Erik Jones. On the final lap, Kahne would stay on the bottom groove of the track, conceding the high-line to Jones. Coming out of the final turn, Jones had a lot of momentum coming off the high side and he was neck and neck with Kahne. Approaching the finish line, the two made contact, breaking Jones’ momentum and slowing him just enough for Kahne to take the victory. Kahne would win his sixth Truck Series race by just five one-thousandths of a second.
9. Erik Darnell – Michigan 2008 – 0.005 Seconds
Erik Darnell’s career in NASCAR was somewhat of a flash in the pan. He got his start in the Truck Series in 2006 with Roush Racing. He’d be out of NASCAR by 2012 and won just a single career race. But boy, was his only career win a thrilling one! In the 2008 Truck Series race at Michigan International Speedway, Darnell would take the lead with 25 laps to go and it looked as though he’s just cruise to his first win.
With three laps left, the caution flag would fly and bunch the field back up. This would set up a shootout for the win. Johnny Benson would get around Darnell and take the lead on the restart. Darnell would close on Benson as they approached the finish line and manage to get a nose in front of him to take the win. Darnell would win by a margin of just five one-thousandths of a second, one of the closest finishes in Truck Series history.
8. Dale Earnhardt – Talladega 1993 – 0.005 Seconds
A list of the NASCAR’s closest finish wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by “The Intimidator” himself, the late Dale Earnhardt. One of NASCAR’s all-time greats, Earnhardt would find himself masterminding one of NASCAR’s closest finishes at Talladega in 1993.
Earnhardt would be in a battle with Kyle Petty and Ernie Irvan in the waning laps of the race. Irvan and Earnhardt would battle side by side coming off the final turn and it looked as though Irvan would edge Earnhardt for the victory. But Earnhardt found a burst of speed and managed to put a bumper past Irvan for the win. Irvan would find himself Earnhardt’s victim by just five one-thousandths of a second. Earnhardt would use the victory as a platform to honor driver Davey Allison who had passed away just 13 days before the race.
6. Jamie McMurray – Daytona 2007 – 0.005 Seconds
Yep, it’s Daytona again. Daytona International Speedway has a flare for the dramatic and this would continue on July 7, 2007. The Pepsi 400 would come down to a 32-lap battle between Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray. McMurray hadn’t won a race since 2002, a span of 166 races. Busch on the other hand was looking to win his second race of the day. That’s right, Kyle Busch had already won the Xfinity Series’ Winn-Dixie 250 that morning due to it being postponed by rain the night before. Busch was looking to become the first driver in history to win an Xfinity Series race and a Cup Series race in the same day.
McMurray and Busch would race side-by-side for the final 32 laps of the race in a seemingly endless drag race. It quickly became clear that this would come down to the last lap. On the final straightaway it looked like Busch was ahead, but a late surge by McMurray would push him just in front of Busch for the victory. McMurray would end his 166-race losing streak by the slimmest of margins, just five one thousandths of a second.
5. Kyle Busch – Talladega 2010 – 0.002 Seconds
Talladega seems to have a knack for insanely close finishes and the 2010 Truck Series Mountain Dew 250 was no different. As the field came around the track for the final lap, Aric Almirola led a string of five trucks all drafting together in a single line. As the leader, Almirola simply had to wait for the others to make their move and do his best to block them. As the field came off the final turn, Almirola still led and it seemed as if he might just cruise to victory.
About 300 yards from the finish line, Kyle Busch and Johnny Sauter both pulled out from the line and made a move for the win. Busch would go to the low side of the track and Sauter the high side. Busch would make contact with Almirola and cross the line barely a hair ahead of him. Busch would take the win by just two one-thousandths of a second and Almirola would go home empty handed.
5. Terry Labonte – Talladega 1999 – 0.002 Seconds
Tired of Talladega finishes yet? We hope not, because it was once again the site of one of NASCAR’s closest finishes. In the 1999 Touchstone Energy 300, the last-lap battle would come between two-time Cup Series champion Terry Labonte and Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek. Both would survive a massive pileup midway through the race that collected several cars.
Nemechek would the be the leader as the field took the white flag for the last lap. Labonte would make his move in turn three and jump to the top of the track to get alongside Nemechek. Both drivers would race side-by-side down the the front stretch. At the line, Labonte would edge Nemechek in a photo-finish. The margin of victory would be just two one-thousandths of a second and tie the Xfinity Series’ record for the closest finish.
4. Buckshot Jones – Milwaukee 1996 – 0.002 Seconds
Our next close finish came in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the legendary Milwaukee Mile in 1996. Buckshot Jones would win in the closest finish in Xfinity Series history. Now I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: Buckshot is an amazing name.
In 1996, Jones wasn’t having a very good year and he was essentially thought of as a bottom feeder in the series. That would all change when Jones found himself racing head-to-head with veteran driver Mike McLaughlin in the final laps. In the final turn, Jones would go to the high side of the race track and McLaughlin the inside. They’d drag race down the final straightaway and Jones would take the win by the narrowest of margins. Jones officially won the race by two one-thousandths of a second. This would be Jones’ first win in NASCAR and is still considered one of NASCAR’s best upset wins.
3. Jimmie Johnson – Talladega 2011 – 0.002 Seconds
Not many finishes in NASCAR have been more thrilling than the 2011 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. On the final lap of the race, eight different drivers were in contention for the win. As they exited the final corner, it was any man’s race. In 2011, two-car drafting became quite prevalent at both Talladega and Daytona. Two cars would hook together, nose to tail and one would push the other to the front.
On the final straightaway, the pairs were Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, and Carl Edwards teamed with Greg Biffle. As they came to the line, it looked like Clint Bowyer would pull off the victory, but a final surge by Earnhardt Jr. pushed Jimmie Johnson ahead of him as the checkered flag flew. Johnson pulled off the victory by just 0.002 seconds. Tied for the closest in Cup Series history and the closest ever at a restrictor plate race.
2. Ricky Craven – Darlington 2003 – 0.002 Seconds
Ricky Craven’s final Cup Series victory would come in one of NASCAR’s most memorable finishes. Every time a sizzle reel or hype video of NASCAR highlights is shown, you’ll see Craven and Kurt Busch side-by-side at Darlington. In 2003, Craven was driving for one of NASCAR’s last single-car teams, PPI Motorsports. They were one of the only teams in NASCAR still running Pontiacs, as Pontiac had announced they were leaving the sport. Not much was expected of Craven and his small team, but at Darlington they would shock the masses.
Craven would be battling at the front with Busch as the laps wound down. On the last lap, Craven and Busch would make contact all the way down the final straightaway, but Craven would take the win in a finish too close to call. The official margin of victory was just two one-thousandths of a second. Craven and Busch would both end up in the wall after the checkered flag, but Craven would take his mangled car to victory lane.
1. Butch Miller – Colorado 1995 – 0.001 Seconds
Leave it to a little-known driver in the Truck Series to top the list of closest finish in NASCAR’s history. Butch Miller had spent a few moderately successful years attempting to get a start in NASCAR, but finally found his niche when the formation of a truck series was announced. Miller would immediately announce his intention to enter the first season of the new series in 1995.
At the 11th race of the season at Colorado National Speedway, Miller would be in a heated battle with fellow truck series regular Mike Skinner as the laps wound down. On the final lap of the race, Miller and Skinner would be side by side coming out of the final turn. At the finish line, Miller would beat Skinner by essentially a millimeter to take the win by the incredible margin of 0.001. One one-thousandth of a second. To this day, this finish is still the closest in the history of NASCAR and was also Butch Miller’s only win in the Truck Series.